Local colleges seeing undergraduate applicant pools increase for the Class of 2018 credit aggressive, targeted efforts to attract prospective students, including from out of state.
While none of them has matched a striking 31 percent increase this year at Clark University, in Worcester, Mass., which also recorded a two-year 70 percent jump, at least two of the schools with increases – at Rhode Island College in Providence and Wheaton College in Norton – reflect specific outreach strategies that seem to be working, admissions and school officials say.
In the face of declining numbers of graduates from Rhode Island high schools, RIC, with a 4 percent increase in applicants, is reaching out to students from Connecticut and Massachusetts. And instead of generating generic information, email pitches and social media, Wheaton, which showed an 18 percent gain, focuses on the college’s strengths and frequent updates on school events, administrators and communications officials say.
“Institutions have really identified a need to be as aggressive as possible with outreach, particularly with declining high school graduates in the Northeast,” said Dan Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island. “The sector is collectively up, so that’s a positive sign that people have been aggressive and working hard.”
AICU represents Rhode Island’s eight private colleges and universities.
For the past two years, seeking out would-be students from border states has been pursued “by design,” said John McLaughlin, director of admissions at RIC, a public college. Out-of-state applications increased by 15 percent in 2013 and by 4 percent this year at RIC, he said.
Overall, with its increase, the applicant pool for the Class of 2018 was 4,780, a record number, he added.
“We typically will visit almost every high school in Rhode Island, and we are serving the population of Rhode Island,” McLaughlin said, “but the [number of] graduating high school seniors in Rhode Island is shrinking – by 5 percent in 2013 and another 2.5 percent this year. In order to keep enrollments up, we looked in Massachusetts and Connecticut, within a 50-mile radius of Providence.”
McLaughlin said the college plays to its strengths, including a strong interest in its nursing and social work programs.
“There’s some mobility with those students that would travel out of state,” he said. And the tuition rate is “pretty comparable” to rates in those states, he added.
RIC tuition for these students would be $9,795, not including another $1,072 in fees and up to $11,000 for room and board, he said.
The Common App also has made it easier for students to apply to colleges around the country, and families are recognizing the academic and economic value of a RIC education, added Laura Hart, director of college communications and marketing.
Wheaton’s increase also led to the largest applicant pool in the school’s 179-year history – 4,018 – according to Michael Graca, assistant vice president for communications.
Dean of Admission Gail Berson sends a series of email messages to prospective students and parents that, while not personalized, Graca said, are focused on the experience that students have at the college – academic offerings, the philosophy of liberal arts and “the kinds of experience we hope students will have as learners.”
“We share letters from current students and graduates of the college,” he explained. “Rather than being purely mechanical – ‘Let us know and we’ll send you more information’ – we really try in our communications to let students know what kind of experience they’ll have at Wheaton.”
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have also proved themselves as communications tools, Graca said.
“We’ve been paying much more attention to social media,” he said. “We do see prospective students interacting with us, and we know it drives traffic to our website. We think it’s an important way to illustrate what’s happening at the college on a daily basis. It’s just a constant stream of the slice of life of what’s happening at the college.”
At Brown, which posted a 5 percent increase to 30,432, no one reason was given for this second-largest applicant pool ever. But Dean of Admission Jim Miller said in an email that the university sees a steady increase in the number and percentage of applicants who say they intend to pursue a career in the science, technology, engineering and math fields.
“Applications from students who intend to concentrate in computer science, for example, increased by 50 percent this year over last year, which mirrors a national trend not only in computer science, but in the sciences generally,” he said.
Brown anticipates an incoming class of 1,560 in the fall.
Clark University’s dramatic increase in its applicant pool can be attributed to a host of factors, said Don Honeman, dean of admissions and financial aid. They include a revitalized campus visit program; effective marketing/recruitment and branding initiatives; the adoption of an SAT test-optional policy; increased guidance counselor engagement; a fifth-year tuition-free master’s degree program; and the appeal of Clark’s approach to undergraduate education, known as Liberal Education and Effective Practice.
When it comes to marketing, the change in how tours are conducted for prospective students appears to have made a positive impact, Honeman said, though everything in combination yielded the end result.
“It’s basically become sort of a storytelling exercise: Students highlight their own experience on the tours instead of talking points we feed them,” he said. “That’s a different approach than most schools take.”
Bryant University posted a 3 percent increase in its applicant pool. Dean of Admission Michelle L. Cloutier says Bryant’s distinctive curriculum integrating business with the arts and sciences is one reason. Another is the real-world learning that leads to 98 percent of students being employed or enrolled in graduate school within six months – with average first-year compensation of more than $50,000, she added.
The University of Rhode Island’s freshman applicant pool this year was nearly the same as last year, with increases in students looking to study nursing, business and engineering.
Officials at schools that recorded declines – including Johnson & Wales University, 4 percent; and Salve Regina University and Rhode Island School of Design, both at 5 percent – said those drops were not significant.
“We planned for less applications, so it was not a surprise,” said Matthias Boxler, a spokesman in university relations at Salve Regina. “The size of our inquiry pool led us to believe that our numbers would resemble previous levels.”
Honeman agreed with Miller and Cloutier that there’s no “silver bullet” to boosting applicants. Schools are “pulling together a number of different strategies,” he said. “It’s all of those things put together.” •