Growing Enrollment in Tough Economic Times: How One Small University Is Coping with the Challenges of a Tough Economy
By: Richard Rossi
Editor’s Note: This article is based on an interview between Richard Rossi and Hernan Bucheli.
Despite overwhelming economic uncertainties, one small West Coast university believes it has found a way not only to maintain enrollment but also to increase it. “No one knows exactly what impact the financial meltdown is going to have on fall enrollment, but we decided early on that we were not going to allow the economic downturn to automatically spell enrollment disaster for our institution,” says Hernan Bucheli, vice president for enrollment management at Notre Dame de Namur University, a private Catholic institution located in Belmont, Calif. “Like most small schools, we are highly tuition dependent, so for us a drop in enrollment is a very serious matter.”
According to Bucheli, NDNU knows a great deal about the effects of declining enrollment. Founded in 1851 by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur and operated continuously ever since, NDNU suffered several years of shrinking enrollment before it began overhauling its marketing and recruitment operation two years ago. The downturn in enrollment growth occurred partly because the university was unprepared for the last downturn in the economy and partly because of internal issues that temporarily hampered recruiting. “In a way we were lucky,” Bucheli says. “The situation we were in forced us to look at how we were going about recruiting and retaining students a full year before the economic crisis came to a head, all of which gave us something of a head start in dealing with the current situation. We were already looking at everything we were doing and trying new things.”
Bucheli said NDNU increased staff slightly to help take care of the “basics”—attending college fairs, talking to guidance counselors, making direct contact with interested students, working more closely with the coaching staff in recruiting athletes and reviewing and processing applications in a timely manner. In addition the staff overhauled brochures and other printed materials to make them more appealing and target them to students who were interested in service learning. To attract older students, the NDNU team increased the number of information forums for prospective graduate and evening undergraduate students. In addition, Bucheli and his team reached out to the rest of the NDNU community to get additional support for their efforts. “In years past the faculty had been heavily involved in recruiting, but for some reason, we’d gotten away from that and it was hurting our recruiting efforts,” Bucheli said. “When we first broached the subject with faculty members, we weren’t sure what kind of reception we’d get. But they were not only willing to help, they were enthusiastic and their help proved to be invaluable. Now we’ve incorporated faculty participation into many of our recruiting activities.”
The result of these new efforts was that NDNU enjoyed a significant spike in inquiries and applications and a record 53 percent increase in its freshman class in fall 2008 compared with the previous year.
“Granted the previous year was low, but the jump in enrollment, especially freshman enrollment, proved to us that we were on the right track,” Bucheli said. “And the lessons we learned are paying huge dividends for us so far in recruiting for fall 2009. Freshman applications for the fall 2009 class are up 23 percent from last year’s pace and deposits are up by 31 percent.”
That increase hasn’t happened by accident. Bucheli noted that given the current economic situation, the enrollment division has had to not only continue to apply the tactics it began using last year, but also add a variety of new ones. “The current increase in applications is due to many factors,” he said. “We’ve added several new programs into the recruitment mix to help produce those results.” These have included ...
- commissioning an academic demand study (environmental scanning) that is helping focus marketing and
recruitment efforts on academic programs that are more likely to boost enrollment
- developing a predicative model to focus list purchases and recruitment efforts to increase the number of nquiries who are most likely to enroll and persist
- retooling the focus of marketing efforts from branding to more of a call to action
- calling the inquiry pool to rank and rate the likelihood of applying
- proactively promoting institutional scholarships
- demystifying the availability of financial aid to prospective students and families
Bucheli added that this is a time for institutions to focus on the fundamentals, not experiment or expand into new markets—to focus on core markets as a priority, which should result in higher conversion and yield. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try anything new. Bucheli notes that NDNU has been placing much more emphasis on new media as a tool to recruit students than it had formerly. “We’ve improved our Web site and have plans to do much more with it, greatly increased e-mail marketing and even created several Facebook pages,” he notes.
Bucheli noted that although applications are up there are still many unknowns to project yield for fall 2009 because of the current economic situation. For one thing the statistical models used in the past to predict what portion of students will enroll may be less reliable. Therefore, it is important to recognize that a substantial increase in applications may not necessarily translate into a similar increase in enrollment. “I think you have to assume a lower yield in times like
this,” Bucheli said. “If we’re wrong, and we end up with the same yield we had last year, we’ll have to scramble to find adequate housing for everyone. That would be a nice problem to have.”
Financial aid is an area that has received a great deal of attention from Bucheli and the rest of the enrollment team. Notre Dame changed its financial aid leveraging model to provide more targeted merit- and need-based institutional aid to prospective students who are more likely to enroll and persist. Debunking myths about the availability of financial aid for families is another significant part of overcoming barriers to enrolling a robust class this year.
“A big part of our success last year was due to creating a sense of awareness with families regarding the availability of student loans and institutional aid in general,” Bucheli said. “A FAQ [frequently asked questions] page concerning financial availability was linked prominently on the Notre Dame admissions and financial aid Web pages. The FAQ [page] addresses and offsets many of the troubling reports in the media regarding the ‘credit crunch and availability of student loans.’” Bucheli said NDNU is following a similar strategy this year and that although it’s still too early in the ycle, so far the signs are encouraging.
Another good sign is how well the graduate admissions pipeline for fall 2009 is shaping up: applications have nearly doubled compared with the previous year and deposits are running far ahead of 2008. Bucheli attributes the gain in part to focused marketing and outreach efforts, but the economic downturn has also played a role, this time a helpful one. “We thought the economic downturn would have a negative impact on graduate and evening adult undergraduate enrollment, and, ultimately, it still may. But the early indications are that the economic uncertainty is having the opposite effect,” he said. Bucheli believes that hard times are causing people to reexamine their careers and, even if they’re still employed, make some changes or enhance their skills to make themselves more valuable to their current employer or more employable should the worst happen.
“I recall speaking to a prospective student who was a manager in a top retail chain in San Francisco. The prospective student mentioned she was interested in Notre Dame’s Education and Leadership program, partly because its reputation as one of the premier programs in the Bay Area, but most importantly because she wanted to be trained to be a teacher just in case there were layoffs in her company. It’s a way to be prepared and have options.”
Bucheli recognizes that despite the early victories, NDNU isn’t out of the woods yet. As a small, tuition-dependent scchool, the challenges presented by the economic downturn are significant, but small institutions do have one advantage that perhaps the Harvards and Stanfords of the world don’t have. “We’re small and that makes us vulnerable in some respects,” said Bucheli. “But we’re also more adaptable. We can turn on a dime if we have to and move in a different direction as far as our recruitment philosophy is concerned. In these times, that helps.”
Richard Rossi is Director of Communications at Notre Dame de Namur University.
Hernan Bucheli has been vice president for enrollment management at Notre Dame de Namur University (NDNU) since October 2007. Bucheli is NDNU’s senior enrollment officer with responsibility for financial aid, marketing admission, NCAA DII athletics, retention and international student services. Bucheli has more than 13 years of enrollment management experience. Prior to NDNU, Bucheli was assistant vice chancellor for enrollment and student affairs at Chapman University’s University College and Alliant International University as systemwide director of enrollment management. Additionally, he serves on the board of directors for Notre Dame High School and the Wiegand Art Gallery in Belmont, Calif. Bucheli also is part of the AACRAO Admissions and Enrollment Management and Retention Committee, sits on the advisory board for Ruffalo Cody and received the 2007 Noel Levitz Marketing and Recruitment Excellence Award while at Chapman University’s University College. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from San Francisco State University and an M.A. in Communication from Barry University.
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