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Suiting the new recruit

Atlantic universities learn a lot about wooing applicants as their local supply of 18 to 24-year-olds starts to dry up. Are there lessons here for other regions?


Robyn Zajac knew she wanted to study outside her native Manitoba, so she applied to universities in Ontario and Atlantic Canada. Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, was near the bottom of her list; her sister had gone there and loved it, but she didn’t want to follow in her sister’s footsteps. Acadia, however, is where she ended up. Ms. Zajac, 18, is in first-year science at Acadia this year, and the university’s aggressive recruiting is partly responsible.

For a variety of reasons – in particular, the diminishing pool of high school students in some regions of North America – many universities in both Canada and the United States are being forced to develop new innovative recruitment tools. These include leveraging social media, sponsoring contests, reaching out to non-traditional markets and aggressively combining retention techniques with recruitment efforts.

Universities in Atlantic Canada, where declining demographics are already a reality, are particularly active. Ms. Zajac says she saw a difference in attitude among the schools she applied to. While the ones in Ontario seemed to consider that they would be “doing [her] a favour” by admitting her, she said the Atlantic universities made it clear they wanted her: “I felt like everyone there really cared about me.”

Universities know the numbers better than anyone. Within two years, the size of the 18-to-21-year-old cohort is expected to level out and start declining nationwide, according to Trends in Higher Education: Enrolment (published by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada). That decline won’t be uniform and will be strongest in the four Atlantic provinces and Saskatchewan.

“Institutions in these provinces will all confront significant enrolment challenges over the coming two decades,” says the 2007 study. “In order to maintain or increase enrolment from today’s levels, they will need to increase the rate of university participation of students either from within their own jurisdictions, or by attracting more out-of-province or international students.”

Denis Boucher, the man responsible for recruitment and retention at the Université de Moncton, says, “It’s a huge challenge for us.” By 2025, Université de Moncton expects the number of high school graduates in New Brunswick to drop by 25 percent.

There’s no single, favoured recruitment method in the art and science of getting more students to attend your campus.

Scott Roberts, executive director of communications and marketing at Acadia, says his institution has put a lot of effort into Web 2.0 approaches focusing on user-generated content.

“We were one of the early adopters of the online portal,” he says. Acadia allows students to self-report grades online (“no one lies,” he insists) to speed up the admissions process. The university also created a Facebook group for incoming students – something Ms. Zajac appreciated because it allowed her to meet people right away and because it reduced the intimidation factor. She says she felt at ease asking questions of someone her own age, and felt she was getting the straight goods and not a faculty member’s hard sell.

Universities at the forefront of student recruitment are also personalizing their efforts – something the millennial generation expects. In the U.S., Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania created what it calls the “synthetic interview.” Starting with the 300 questions most commonly asked by prospective students, the university taped clips of faculty answering the questions and posted them on the web. “You get your questions answered by what appears to be a live body,” says university president Mel Schiavelli.

Many institutions are looking abroad for students. Since a French-language university has a smaller pool of potential students within Canada than any English-language institution, says Mr. Boucher, U de Moncton has made a huge and successful push for international students. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of students at U de Moncton from the francophone countries of Haiti, Tunisia, New Guinea and Morocco grew from 66 to 221.

Universities are also tracking changes in student attitudes and responding to those changes.

Students’ motivation for going to university has undergone a profound shift, says Susan Monique Mesheau, executive director of recruitment and retention for the University of New Brunswick. At the start of the decade, research showed about half of all students came to university in search of higher learning, and half came because they were after a good job after graduation. But she says current figures from the National Survey of Student Engagement, or NSSE, show that up to 90 percent of incoming students are focused on a good career after graduation.

“Now we have students who expect to get a good job and we have to be much more proactive in guiding them to a career,” agrees Joe Velaidum, a University of Prince Edward Island faculty member charged with a new role to strengthen student engagement. (See related news story, “Ontario universities assess the effectiveness of learning interventions.”)

At the same time, student retention is starting to be mentioned in discussions about recruitment. It’s obvious that the more students a university can retain into second year, the less it has to spend on expensive recruitment campaigns. Some universities, including UNB, are integrating the two efforts into one office.

“We kept bringing in new students year after year, but our enrolment was going down because of retention issues,” says Ms. Mesheau. So UNB began studying what she calls “successful leavers” – people who left even though they were succeeding academically – and came to the conclusion that the clientele had changed: Students today (and their parents) were much more focused on a career than on the value of an education in general. “Our clients had changed. We had to act on that,” she says.

“Recruitment and retention can’t be ripped apart,” she continues. “We have to continually market to retain our students, because every day they make a decision to stay or to go.

“Retention is not something that’s on the radar of a lot of universities,” adds Ms. Mesheau. But, at national conferences of peers where she has broached the topic, “folks say it’s time we started thinking about this elephant in the room.”

To improve retention, the University of Windsor has started profiling incoming students with an eye to identifying those who might be at risk of leaving for any reason, says Clayton Smith, vice-provost, students and registrar. “We’re trying to tag and coach these students” from the start, he says.

Approaches to recruitment and retention in Canada differ somewhat from those in the United States, according to a study published by Dr. Smith and Susan Gottheil of Calgary’s Mount Royal College in the fall 2008 issue of College & University, the journal of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

“Whereas American higher education no longer fears the ‘recruitment’ word, Canada is still transitioning from a liaison outreach effort to one that includes more strategic recruitment,” says the study, which also notes that the approach to retention is also more goal-oriented in the U.S.

What’s driving innovation in U.S. recruitment offices, in addition to the decline in the age cohort, is the growth of online institutions such as the 
University of Phoenix.

“Although many academics and others may wish colleges and universities could operate chiefly as the educational institutions they have been imagined to be, the reality is that higher education is now big business,” says Eric Anctil, a professor of education at Washington State University who wrote Selling Higher Education: Marketing and Advertising America’s Colleges and Universities.

His point is echoed by Jim Cooper, director of marketing at Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia. “In the United States, at least, it’s so competitive and there are so many institutions that unless you have a totally recognizable name or a big football team, you have to work to get your name out there.”

Students today are more sophisticated and knowledgeable than previous generations, say university officials, and their parents are more actively involved in the process than they used to be. And given the cost of a university education, they are acutely conscious of getting value for their money. Many universities are turning to branding and related activities to try to stand out.

Yet society puts conflicting demands on universities, observes Ken Steele, senior vice-president, education marketing, of the London, Ontario-based Academica Group.

“Society places expectations on universities that they be bastions of tradition, but also that they be forward-looking research institutions that develop innovation.”

He says Canadian universities generally cover both bases when it comes to scholarly activities, but have been slower to embrace innovation around marketing: “Right now, 90 percent of Canadian universities don’t have a really clear, five-word reason why you would go to that university.”

Marketing to savvy students in a competitive universe is only going to get more intense, say many experts. And Canada’s Atlantic universities – which are facing demographic challenges ahead of the pack – may be a beacon of where things have to go.

A decade ago, students tended to look to universities close to home, observes Michael Pickard, associate director for marketing at Memorial University. But now, it’s just as easy to Google a university anywhere in the world as it is to find out about the one next door.

“In Canada, we used to have the Field of Dreams philosophy: If you build it, they will come,” says Mr. Pickard. “That’s changed.”

Daniel Drolet
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