Saint Michael's College President Jack Neuhauser says this season's last-place struggles for his beloved Boston Red Sox just a year after the team's improbable 2013 World Series Championship offer a cautionary tale: Even the best of times can turn on a dime for baseball fans and college presidents.
Neuhauser is naturally pleased by news from the enrollment office that an incoming Saint Michael's first-year class of about 590 students, the largest in 10 years, dramatically bucks experts' predictions of a dire market for New England colleges.
"We have to be careful we don't think quite yet that this is the new normal," he says, even while acknowledging that what Saint Michael's did right in the past year likely contributed to a stronger recruitment class than at nearly every other college. He bases that on what he's hearing from fellow presidents and enrollment experts.
Enrolling a larger-than-expected class—about 50 more students than the target range of 500 to 540—presents a challenge to properly accommodate each student's academic and daily needs, but it's a good problem to have, the president says. "We're certainly not going to stop what we've been doing that's been working," he says.
Many Deserve Credit
Neuhauser credits this year's strong numbers to Sarah Kelly, vice president for enrollment and marketing since September 2013, who in turn tips her hat to the solid foundation and innovative, positive spirit handed off to her by Jerry Flanagan, her predecessor for the
prior 40 years.
Flanagan now serves as senior philanthropic advisor in the Office of Institutional Advancement, focusing mainly on student financial aid, a key element in attracting classes of ideal size and quality. It's an area Saint Michael's is targeting for growth because families tend to choose the college offering the greatest value.
This is why Kelly and her team are showing families and students—not telling them, she stresses—that all is decidedly not equal once families consider the full value of the distinctive Saint Michael's education "brand" relative to others'—especially after merit-based or need-based scholarships determine the actual price tag. Neuhauser says Kelly is good about personally writing to families concerning financial aid appeals to make the case for Saint Michael's eloquently and specifically, and on more than just a strictly dollars-and-cents basis, though she has changed some financial aid protocols, too.
"We wanted to be sure we got our merit and scholarship awards sent within 48 hours after a decision letter went out this year so we could deliver a one-two punch," Kelly says. "We also made sure to lead with our first, best merit award offer. In the past, all schools, including us, tried to hold back for some negotiation room. It feels more authentic to give what we can right up front so students feel good about us and we stay in their choice set as long as we can."
She feels this year's recruiting success has turned largely on getting the strong Saint Michael's message out to prospects and their families, boldly, creatively and persistently, boosted immensely by a Flanagan parting legacy called the Visitor Grant program.
Campus Visits a Hit
"We know that once you visit campus, once you park in that Hoehl Welcome Center parking space where this year we put up signs with visitors' names the day they visited—we have a really good chance of getting you because of how special a place it is, how beautiful a place it is," Kelly says. "We wanted to incentivize families to come, and visitor grants have really caught on. It was a very smart thing Jerry Flanagan did."
The grants are for $1,000 for students who enroll, renewable each year they remain at the College. Saint Michael's has one of the best
retention rates in the country, and has for decades, hovering around 90 percent for years, notes Jacki Murphy, the College's veteran director of admission.
In Kelly's mind, another important improvement in telling the College's story this year was that, "We changed what we do on a campus visit and how we talk about the Saint Michael's experience.
"We trained our tour guides to tell stories that are meaningful to families, because what we know is that high school seniors want nothing more than to see themselves as college freshmen," she says. "So when they come, we try to help them see themselves here."
For example, the College offered overnight stays to accepted students, this year with themes like Wilderness Program (they went ice climbing), Fire and Rescue (they slept in the firehouse), Multicultural (quality time with current students). "And 80 percent of kids who participated enrolled," Kelly says. Part of the campus visit also now includes "showrooms" so prospective students and families can go into dorms or townhouses and see where they
might live, meeting student residents in the process."
Kelly and Neuhauser particularly praised faculty who stepped up last year to contact students, make presentations to visiting families and impart the personal touch that is a vital differentiator for Saint Michael's, given its relative geographical isolation.
All told, Kelly says, 36 faculty members made calls to prospects this year, compared with 20 last year.
'Taste of the Liberal Arts' Helped
Another initiative was this past spring's "Taste of the Liberal Arts" presentations for accepted students and their families. These engaging programs starred faculty from an array of disciplines, riffing on what to many is a consummate symbol of modern Vermont: Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream, with its edgy and whimsically named flavors. Kelly explains how that worked: "Let's say the flavor was 'What a Cluster,' so we'd ask the faculty panel, ‘What does 'cluster' mean to a biologist, a mathematician and a philosopher?'".
Then Mark Lubkowitz from biology would perhaps talk about clusters of taste receptors on the human tongue as a product of evolutionary biology before passing off to George Ashline from mathematics, who used cluster theory in statistics to differentiate between National League and American League batters in baseball—an activity that fathers and sons seemed to love, Kelly says. "Then philosopher Crystal L'Hote talked about how to ask fundamental questions like, ‘How am I going to live my life? Are my desires to eat this flavor something to act on, and a good thing?' L'Hote even managed to work the Epicureans and the Platonics into her ice cream talk, recalls Kelly, adding, "Everyone had so much fun."
The College's beautiful, year-old Dion Family Student Center for such events was another big attraction in boosting class numbers, Kelly feels certain. And Neuhauser says the "dumb luck" of perfect weather for every major day of mass family campus visits also made a big difference.
Alumni Pitched In
Another Kelly initiative was increasing the number of area receptions hosted by alumni around the Northeast and even beyond—any place with enough alumni to host events where prospective Saint Michael's families could hear successful graduates' enthusiasm for the College. The locations included Colorado, California, Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts.
Neuhauser says he spent much of last year prudently planning with the cabinet for the possible necessity of shrinking the College in the near future, given undeniable data showing an expected decline of some 20 percent in high school students in the Northeast soon, coupled with growing economic pressures on families. In light of those demographics, he says, he'll still keep those plans on ready standby, since "a downside mistake is much more worrisome than an upside mistake.
"Not growing is still a good strategy," he says, "not a lot smaller, but if we had a slightly smaller class on a consistent basis, it would fit better in the physical plant, along with some other advantages."
Last year's worst-case planning models had the College prepared to shrink to as low as 1,600 students, but now the president says, "I don't think we'll need to get that small in five years, which is what we first thought. I think we can be more aggressive on geography and quality in our recruiting, since we think we have a bit of a cushion."
One too-common scenario to avoid, says Murphy, is a roller-coaster recruitment pattern of large classes followed by small classes. That can wreak havoc with academic and student life planning, as has happened at some other colleges. Both Kelly and Neuhauser praised how the Saint Michael's Student Life staff rose heroically to the challenge of a large class, finding beds for everyone, keeping first-year students together and being sure the right resources were in place to serve them all well.
Efforts Pay Off
The president says his best theory on the strong Saint Michael's entering class is that the sum of a host of smart, small initiatives and positive, chance developments, taken together, made a marked difference from one year to the next. "I think slight changes in financial aid, more assiduous attention to individual recruiters in the field, enhanced follow-up on submissions—each of these might have only added 10 students, but there were maybe 10 things, and they all worked. Could we do it again? I don't know, but we're not going to stop."
Kelly thinks alumni deserve credit for the recent student surge, too. "My big message to them would be, ‘Thank you,'" she says. "They're out there talking about St. Mike's, and we know how proud our alumni are of the college. We get our best referrals from alumni." Some make phone calls to families, others attend college fairs in their regions to talk about St. Mike's, and it all helps, she says.
Building on that, another initiative for the coming year provides that a student referred by an alumnus can qualify for a $1,000 grant through the new "Alumni Awards Recognition" program.
As Neuhauser says, "Alumni should know we've been working on getting the message out about this being a great place to learn and grow, how the liberal arts can contribute to that. We're serious about the relationship between individual faculty members and students. I think maybe that's caught on. That might be what we're seeing in our numbers this year."
Recruiting with a Personal Touch
Taking a team approach to reaching potential students, developing innovative programs and communicating the value of a Saint Michael's education spell recruiting success for the college.
- Alumni-hosted home receptions
- Alumni referrals
- Calls from professors to accepted students
- Current student campus meet-ups
- Themed campus overnight visits, activities
- Taste of the Liberal Arts program
- $1,000 a year incentive for those who visit and enroll
- Early merit and scholarship awards notification
- Engaging, see-yourself-here stories by campus tour guides
- Personal touch in letters