Colleges deploy marketing pizazz to woo students

New tactics to chase shrinking pool of high school grads

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When Juniata College recruits students online, it doesn't rely on a one-size-fits-all campus sales pitch -- not even when sending out mass emails.

Instead, it borrows a page from online retail by giving each recipient a feel for life at Juniata targeted to them. It begins the instant they click on a link bearing their name and respond to prompts asking them their likely major and what they hope for in a college.

Those ignoring the overture are liable to find a playful follow-up note in their inbox -- "Was it something we said?" -- and a less subtle nudge inside.

"Maybe email's not your thing, but we are also starting to wonder if there isn't another college in the picture. Say it isn't so. We thought from the start that you'd be a good match for Juniata," it reads. "What can we do to get things started?"

The one-to-one marketing firm Juniata now uses is one among a variety of tools -- from sophisticated marketing software to tuition price cuts and even student loan buybacks -- that colleges are using this fall to stand out from competitors as they chase a shrinking pool of high school applicants.

The firm's personalized and sometimes whimsical approaches might seem unorthodox to those used to a weightier approach to college admissions. But consider this: The well-regarded, if isolated, campus in the mountains of central Pennsylvania has managed to hold its own in enrolling students from this state while making inroads in far-flung markets amid what some are calling the worst recruiting period in decades.

Juniata hasn't stopped working the phones or lugging brochures to local college fairs. But now it can resonate with a future English major in Oregon worried about jobs, or an aspiring chemist in Connecticut out for an exciting academic experience -- all through content delivered in real time that varies based on their answers.

"If we can build some momentum, maybe turn some heads in a market we're trying to break into, that's a positive," said Michelle Bartol, dean of enrollment on the campus of 1,600 students in Huntingdon. "It's just one more piece of what we do."

Colleges have always sought to give students a sense they will get personalized attention. Technology makes that easier.

Texting prospects is now a routine practice at many schools. Others flatter highly qualified teens by sending out applications already partially filled out with information the school obtained from the student directly or from a third party.

"Some students really like that," said Jim Rawlins, immediate past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and director of admissions at the University of Oregon. "Some might get freaked out."

Still other schools, responding to anxieties about cost in a still-sluggish economy, are rethinking their price.

Geneva College is among those planning to freeze tuition. Its undergraduate price for the 2014-15 academic year will remain $25,220.

Wilson College in Chambersburg is taking things further.

The liberal arts campus of 660 students will cut tuition by $5,000, or 17 percent, to $23,745 in 2014-15, having frozen tuition the past three years.

In addition, it will launch next fall a student debt buyback program, offering Stafford loan recipients who finish in four years anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 toward their debt. Eligibility is pegged to such requirements as a 3.5-or-better grade point average, involvement in activities like student government or tutoring and completing a course to help them better manage their finances.

Wilson officials said they want to boost enrollment to 1,000 students over the next decade to absorb rising costs, but they also know the students they enroll -- often first-generation students from lower-income households -- are highly vulnerable to rising prices.

'We wanted to simplify things'

Wilson president Barbara Mistick said she is aware of the view by some in higher education that price is prestige, and that discounting hurts the brand.

But she is convinced the nation has reached a tipping point about college affordability.

"This constant raising of your tuition when all you're doing is raising your discount rate, and people borrowing more and more, just seemed out of kilter," she said. "We wanted to simplify things."

It remains to be seen if the strategy will work long term. But already this fall, Wilson has received as many new-student applications as it did all of last year, said Ms. Mistick, former director and president of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

There is no denying that across much of the nation, the pool of high school graduates has shrunk.

It peaked at 3.4 million in 2010 after uninterrupted growth spanning two decades, but as of this fall was down by an estimated 190,000 students. Though some improvement is forecast next year, numbers are not expected to fully recover until 2024, according to Colorado-based Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education.

Pennsylvania's total, which peaked at 150,000 in 2009-10, is expected to bottom out at 136,000 in 2019-20 before rebounding.

The effect on schools in this state has not been uniform, due to myriad factors including perceived prestige, location, financial aid offers and recruiting strategies, experts say.

For example, most of the 14 universities belonging to the State System of Higher Education lost students this fall, and a few have seen declines since 2010 approaching or exceeding 20 percent, among them Clarion, Edinboro and Cheyney universities.

Yet the University of Pittsburgh, whose $16,240 base yearly tuition is more than twice the State System's $6,622 rate, saw more main-campus undergraduates, while Penn State University enrollment is at an all-time high, despite declines at some of its locations.

A number of private colleges also logged gains, many with help from deep tuition discounting -- a strategy many administrators say increasingly strains campus finances. That discount averages 45 percent for freshmen nationally, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Statistics aside, one need only flip through the TV channels to see the scramble to fill seats.

Penn State, even with its strong national brand, is airing TV ads in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere as its works to reverse branch campus losses. The spots allude to the university's popularity with corporate recruiters and suggest that a Penn State education is available right in Pittsburgh through the school's Beaver, Greater Allegheny and New Kensington campuses.

A commercial for Indiana University of Pennsylvania uses emotion to deliver a pitch about finding success.

It uses classroom scenes and an audio clip of a December 2010 commencement speech by then-campus minister the Rev. Joe Boomhower, who knew his fifth-grade son's student teacher was among those graduating that day.

He surprised the woman by calling her up on stage and giving her a gift of appreciation from his son: a Christmas ornament.

Rev. Boomhower alluded to the impact she had on his son in telling the audience of their own potential:

"All of your professors, all of them, they know that all it takes is one dreamer with passion, one person, and they hope in each of you that you might be that one, who makes a longer-lasting light bulb, who writes music for the ages, who reaches into the mind and discovers a new star and who can change the world of a fifth-grader."

The minister adds, "We're gathered here to hope in you."

The variables of admission

College admissions has long been a mix of data mining, worn shoe leather and plain luck as schools try to predict behaviors of 17- and 18-year-olds, some applying to a dozen or more schools. Even deposits have become a less reliable enrollment predictor because many families hold spots at multiple schools.

"If looking at a college's website is a form of window-shopping, the act of applying is just walking into the store," said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal regulations and policy analysis for the Washington D.C.-based American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "There's still no guarantee. Just because you decide a student's really good, just because you admit them, there's still no guarantee they're going to enroll."

And there's no telling what will turn that decision.

For James Imbrie, 20, now a Juniata sophomore from Bethel Park, one of the factors was a student lounge in the physics department adorned with discarded but comfortable couches and chairs, old desks and a huge Dairy Queen sign.

"It just seemed kind of quirky, like a friendly environment," he said after a campus visit. "Other colleges I had looked into were sort of more prestigious, but they were more structured. This place seemed more laid-back."

Many prospects, though, never get as far as a visit. And college websites can sometimes be why, said Mr. Nassirian. He said many are simply reflections of the school's hierarchy that make it difficult for students to quickly find information of interest to them.

That's why Juniata took a different approach a few years back to better engage its prospects by hiring Waybetter Marketing for one-to-one communication support.

Using student information that Juniata already has or purchased from vendors, the firm sends out emails that steer prospects to a microsite, which resembles Juniata's homepage and can deliver targeted content in real time based on how a student answers questions, Ms. Bartol said.

For instance, someone interested in art history and a job market edge receives that information, as well as follow-up approaches online and in print and eventually an invitation to visit.

Juniata reports a 15 percent increase in applications since 2010, and Ms. Bartol credits the microsite approach as one of the reasons, especially in parts of the country where Juniata is not as well known.

Rich Whipkey, a principal at Waybetter, said that as students click through a school's site, seconds can be the difference between making them interested or losing them.

"They're not going to linger," he said. "You've got to give them what they want quickly."

Bill Schackner: or 412-263-1977. itter: @BschacknerPG.

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