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Interview: Vice Chancellor Tom Willoughby on enrollment

Tom Willoughby

Tom Willoughby has been DU's vice chancellor for enrollment since 2004. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Q: Given the recession, many will assume enrollment at private universities is down. That may not be the case for DU. How did the University stay ahead of the curve?

A: We read the writing on the wall and planned for the challenges the recession would likely present. We knew we were entering a period of great uncertainty in which predictable patterns of behavior might shift in how students and their families choose colleges and universities.

In the fall, an independent market-research firm confirmed our initial thoughts. Some 11,000 high school students were surveyed to determine if the economic climate was affecting their college search plans and ultimately their application and enrollment decisions. We learned that students were more likely to apply to more schools, more likely to consider schools offering more generous scholarship and financial aid awards, more likely to stay closer to home, and more likely to make enrollment deposits to more than one school to keep options open throughout the summer.

We knew other colleges and universities would be mindful of the financial challenges families were facing and would likely admit more students and offer more generous financial aid to enroll their targeted class. Students receiving multiple offers of admission and financial aid could potentially mean fewer students accepting DU’s offer to enroll than in previous years. If we were going to compete in this challenging marketplace, we knew we needed to think differently and implement new strategies. We needed to maximize the size of our applicant pool, encourage more students to complete the application process, admit more students and admit them earlier in the process, increase financial aid and communicate value repeatedly. We also increased the number of students offered a spot on our wait list.

Q: How many more students did you admit this year?

A: Our goal was to enroll a first-year class of 1,145 students this fall. Without compromising academic quality, we admitted 5,925 first-time, first-year students, compared to 4,595 admitted last year. We predicted that 3-4 percent fewer students would accept our offer of admission, and that’s exactly what happened. But as of July 31, we had 1,232 deposits, almost 90 more than expected.

Q: You said one of the University’s strategies was to increase the number of applicants. How did you do that?

A: The approach was very tactical. We created a streamlined Web application that was pre-populated with information we had captured previously about the student. The application only asked for essential information we needed and as a result was easier and more efficient to complete. The No. 1 consideration for students today is efficiency. They are accustomed to doing everything online. We designed an application with all of that in mind, and as a result we witnessed a 29 percent increase in applications.

Q: One of the things that differentiates a university most is the academic quality of its students. Are you sacrificing quality for numbers?

A: Not at all. We not only had a larger applicant pool this year, but the academic quality of the students applying improved. The academic profile for those expected to enroll this fall is as strong as ever. One of the academic measures we track is the percentage of students enrolling who graduated from the top 10 percent of their high school class. This fall, 47 percent of our new students are from the top 10 percent. That compares to 42 percent last year and 35 percent two years ago. Equally important, the racial and ethnic diversity of our new students increased from 15.5 percent to 18 percent of the class.

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