Effective Strategies for Increasing Undergraduate Student Enrollment
In a recent Academic Leader article, we outlined the need for colleges and universities to increase their efforts in undergraduate student recruiting in order to remain fiscally secure in an environment where the student pool is shrinking. The top public and private universities and colleges will continue to prosper on account of reputation, quality, size, and large cash reserves that include billion-dollar endowments. It is the tiers below these universities that will have to scramble for students. In that article we suggested that these institutions define what distinguishes them (what is particularly excellent and unique about them) and direct their attention, through appropriate marketing strategies, to subsets of the applicant pool that they best serve. Our purpose here is to suggest some strategies for promoting your strengths and uniqueness so that your institution can successfully compete for undergraduate students.
In this article we present approaches, activities, and strategies that the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), our home institution, has successfully employed. We had several goals to fulfill with our marketing initiative, which included reaching out to alumni, enhancing philanthropy, and educating the public at large regarding the academic strength of the institution as well as recruiting undergraduate students. Our active participation in student recruitment started in 2010–11 with the hiring of three individuals for this and related purposes. At the same time, school leadership changed, and within a short period thereafter, the marketing campaign had begun to yield dividends. For the six-year period from 2013–14 through 2018–19, the number of school majors increased by 610 while the campus number, excluding the school results, showed a decrease of 1,700 majors.
The campus environment
The IUPUI campus is located in downtown Indianapolis. A 10-minute walk will get you to the Indiana State House, and a 15-minute walk will get you to the center of the city. Three museums and a zoo border the campus. Indianapolis is home to many sports venues, including those for NFL and NBA franchises, Triple-A baseball, and lower-level professional teams in hockey and soccer. Indianapolis is also home to the NCAA headquarters (located just south of campus) and the world-famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In addition, Indianapolis has the other amenities (theaters, symphony, etc.) typical of similar-sized US cities.
We mention the above characteristics because each is a potential lure to an element of each high school graduation class, especially for students not coming from central Indiana. The marketing for the School of Science and the marketing materials coming from the Office of. Admissions both highlight these attractions.
IUPUI has 17 schools, two of which—Engineering & Technology and Science—offer Purdue University degrees. It is also is home to a large array of professional schools, including dentistry, law, and the largest or second-largest (depending on the year that you ask!) medical school in the US. The campus is clearly focused on human health and life sciences. This focus goes beyond IUPUI and includes the central Indiana area.
There are seven departments and two independent degree programs in the School of Science, each of which has a life sciences flavor. Besides Biology, there are Chemistry & Chemical Biology, Computer Science, Earth Sciences, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. The two undergraduate programs are Forensic & Investigative Sciences (FIS; fully accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission) and Neuroscience (NS). FIS is the result of a collaborative effort on the parts of Biology and Chemistry & Chemical Biology, and NS is a collaborative program between Biology and Psychology. FIS is unique in the state, and NS programs are uncommon at the undergraduate level.
Beyond distinctive degree programs, Science has additional elements that are used to attract prospective undergraduates. Since IUPUI’s formation in 1969, faculty members have mentored undergraduate students in research. At that time they were the only “hands” we had, and our commitment to undergraduate research remains unrelenting today even with the availability of MS and PhD students.
Our environment—health and life sciences—affords our students many opportunities for part-time employment and internships. Internal examples of such opportunities include the Freshman Work Program (FWP) in biology where incoming majors work up to 10 hours per week (for pay) for faculty members or staff. Originally instituted as a retention initiative (Malik & Lees, 2017), it has proven to be very popular with students (some students remain affiliated with their lab for all four years) and their parents thus making it an attractive recruiting tool. Biology has also developed, with the School of Medicine, the Life-Health Sciences Internship (LHSI) program (Malik & Lees, 2017). This program places sophomore or junior students with professional school aspirations in their target school for yearlong internships. Undergraduate research, the FWP, and the LHSIs would be things to prominently mention in recruiting materials and during campus visits. Faculty research successes are also highlighted and are routinely accompanied by pictures displaying the entire research group, including identified undergraduates.
The marketing team
The marketing team now consists of four people and works closely with the campus admissions office, the campus communications and marketing office, development, alumni affairs, academic affairs, and the career office. The team consists of the marketing director, a communications staff member, a web developer, and a recruiter. We recommend that the director of the recruiting effort be trained or highly experienced in both marketing and student recruiting. The team also uses current undergraduate students in recruiting. These students, called ambassadors, are a mix of volunteers completing institutional service obligations and student hourly workers. The ambassadors serve several roles that we will discuss later, but for now suffice to say that they are close enough in age to be peers to prospective students and thus can influence their decisions to attend the institution. We recommend that current undergraduate students be a part of the recruitment effort.
The substance of our message
Our unofficial school slogan is “We graduate success stories,” so we use individual examples of student successes in our printed and electronic materials. Because success comes in many forms, these materials can feature stories of (among other things) outstanding academic performance, research findings, significant engagement activities, scholarship recipients, and post-graduation admissions. Likewise, faculty successes—whether high-profile research (e.g., on addictions or obesity) or large grant awards—are featured with pictures of the research group, which, again, has undergraduate members.
Converting these successes into stories suitable for a website is the responsibility of the marketing team’s communications member. On occasions when a story is deemed of broad general interest, we call upon the expertise of this individual again to develop a plan for reaching the external media. Versions of the stories are also prepared for emails to alumni and for hard-copy materials, such as brochures.
The sources of materials for these stories are many. They include the academic affairs (student achievements and awards); development (large gifts, especially student scholarships); and alumni (their career successes) offices as well as academic departments including faculty (new grants, research breakthroughs, teaching innovations, contributions of undergraduate students). Academic departments are eager to share this information.
The marketing team uses technology extensively to deliver its message efficiently and effectively and communicate with prospective students in ways they expect. The team uses a customer relationship management tool to send out timed messages to all or to subsets of prospective students. Marketing uses is the same tool used by the Office of Admissions, thus allowing our team to see all communications with prospective students. Because a growing number of students use social media to help make their college choices, the school also has Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and email accounts that it uses to correspond with prospective students.
The campus visit
This is a key step to successful recruiting. The campus visit represents the first face-to-face meeting between school representatives and the student prospects. These days’ events, which can vary depending on a number of factors, are carefully coordinated with the Office of Admissions. This office focuses on campus-level topics—such as housing, parking, and financial aid—for part of the day. The science recruiter then takes students to the school, where they tour research labs and meet with faculty, advisors, and current students. Here they learn about the curricula, degree options, undergraduate research, clubs, and the like and are taken on tours through research labs where they are greeted by faculty and their current research students. A popular highlight of some student visits is a panel, comprised of our student ambassadors, that presents and takes questions on “what it is like to be a student in the School of Science.” For recruiting the class beginning in fall 2020, the marketing team will be converting the campus visit to a virtual visit in order to accommodate the restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before departing each prospective student receives a memento of the institution and the school. It may be a backpack, a water bottle, or a pen (all with the appropriate branding) that serves as reminder of our continued interest in them as they prepare to make that final decision. Shortly thereafter each prospect receives a handwritten note or an email from a student ambassador that thanks them for attending and invites any questions that may arise.
Close collaboration between admissions and the school team is critical in assuring that accurate, complete, non-duplicative information is provided to students. We further recommend that the team make certain that the research labs are selected on the basis of dependability and enthusiasm for student recruiting.
Malik, D. J., & Lees, N. D. (2017). Department and school programs that increase student retention, success and engagement. Academic Leader, 33(8), 4–5. https://www.academic-leader.com/topics/students/programs-that-increase-student-retention-success-and-engagement
Lauren A. Kay-Beason is executive director of marketing and media relations in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Lindsay N. Heinzman is executive director of development and alumni affairs in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
Simon J. Rhodes, PhD, is provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of North Florida and former dean of the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.