SVSU’s first-time student enrollment rates increased by 28 percent for the Fall 2018 semester, one of the highest the university has seen in recent years.
SVSU administrators say several factors contributed to the increase, including the recent market research-based student outreach efforts undertaken by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and University Communications, as well as the restructuring of financial aid packages offered to freshmen.
Combined, those factors help to explain the increase in SVSU’s freshmen enrollment, even as total college freshmen enrollment rates in Michigan remain on the decline.
Rethinking Student Outreach
As freshmen and overall student enrollment at SVSU continued to decline, school representatives used innovative market research and contact methods to better target high school students who were previously not being engaged by the university’s outreach efforts, according to SVSU Director of Media and Community Relations J.J. Boehm and Director of Undergraduate Admissions Jennifer Pahl.
The overall decline in Michigan’s freshmen college enrollment rates compelled the Office of Undergraduate Admissions to raise awareness among younger high school students than it had done so in the past, Pahl said.
Expanding on the standard industry practice of purchasing the names of high school juniors and seniors who have taken the ACT or SAT standardized tests for advertising purposes, Boehm said SVSU now does the same for Preliminary SAT tests, which are generally taken by sophomores.
“For the last three years … we have been doing early awareness with sophomores in high school through the junior year, and I really think that has been a significant reason why our applications have grown, why our numbers have grown,” Pahl said. “We’re getting to them earlier, and now we’re one of their considerations.”
Boehm said national data shows high school students are most responsive to outreach from colleges and universities in their sophomore year, which is usually before they have formed concrete impressions of prospective schools or chosen their top picks.
“It’s that sophomore year that really is when that exploration process begins,” Boehm said.
According to Boehm, one of SVSU’s recent strategies for reaching out to high school students is heavier emphasis on personalized physical mailers, intended to provide potentially interested students with promotional materials that their parents would likely see as well.
SVSU already has an established practice of students who work as tour guides and make promotional calls to potential students, answering their questions and inviting them to submit applications or attend open houses, said Pahl.
However, this year, Pahl said those student employees will contact potential students through text messages as well.
“Years ago, we were touted often times as the best-kept secret in Michigan,” Pahl said. “Now that we’ve been doing such deliberate approaches to try to recruit student earlier and get our name out, I think that’s a reason why these (enrollment) numbers are so strong. … People are literally finding out about us for the first time and wanting to come explore.”
Boehm and Pahl said one of the most important recruitment factors is simply getting high school students on campus to experience SVSU in person.
Pahl said that in recent years, many high schools have become less willing to pull students out of classes and lectures for visitors and events, complicating the jobs of SVSU’s representatives.
“They don’t want them to lose that critical academic time; that’s why they’re reluctant,” Pahl said. “So now they want us to come in for lunchtime visits so the kids aren’t out of a classroom period. Well, who wants to give up their lunch time?”
Accordingly, Pahl said the Office of Undergraduate Admissions has kept a heavy focus on encouraging students to visit SVSU and on maintaining high-quality tour experiences for those who do.
Students who visit campus become far more likely to end up applying, Pahl said.
“We’ve worked really hard to sponsor a lot of outside organization events that are predominantly with high school students to bring them to campus,” Pahl said.
Regional high school competitions regularly hosted at SVSU include the FIRST robotics competition, the HOSA health occupation competition, the DECA business competition, a forensics debate tournament and multiple sports camps. Those events bring significant traffic to SVSU,and students who attend are often experiencing SVSU for the first time, Pahl said.
Pahl added that in recent years, high schools have tended to be less willing to fund field trips to universities, increasing SVSU’s motivation to entice students to visit with special events.
“This year, for the first time in probably a decade, we’re hosting a high school counselor day in November,” Pahl said. “(Counselors) are a key factor in decision-making for students, and many of them across the state have had no awareness of SVSU.”
Another important change to SVSU’s recruitment strategy has been the use of locally based regional representatives. Those staff members are based across the state and work to promote SVSU in areas outside the Great Lakes Bay Region. Regional representatives conduct typical high school visits and immerse themselves in their own and neighboring counties while visibly promoting the university, Pahl said.
“We now have three regional representatives and are hoping to hire a fourth one,” Pahl said. “They are based out of the county they live in, and they are there to hopefully increase exposure in the community.”
Boehm and Pahl both pointed to SVSU’s integrative approach and its proven efficacy as the method that has been most effective in cutting through the noise of college solicitations experienced by today’s high school students.
“(High school students’) preferences run the gamut,” Boehm said. “What we need to do is make sure that we’re very consistent in our messaging, so they get an accurate representation of what SVSU can offer.”
Pahl agreed, praising University Communications’ personalized and diverse outreach strategy for setting the university apart from others, who many times resort to using outside advertising firms.
“We work really hard to make sure our creative content and message is very unique to SVSU,” Pahl said. “Students bring us their letters and information from other schools, and they’re literally identical. … The student thinks, ‘Oh, I’m a form letter to them.’”
Data-Driven Market Research
Boehm explained that much of the change to SVSU’s recruitment strategy was informed by extensive market research.
“Some of this is an outgrowth from market research conducted back in the fall of 2015,” Boehm said. “We worked with a company called Dartlet [now Carnegie Dartlet]. They’re a rapidly rising player in the higher education marketing and communications sphere.”
Boehm said that during that period, about 900 participants consisting of faculty, staff and students took part in market research consisting of surveys and focus groups to determine what traits they already identified with SVSU, and which of those to emphasize in the university’s student recruitment efforts.
The research helped SVSU administrators identify the university’s market niche in terms of what it can offer prospective students and how to differentiate SVSU from other institutions, Boehm said. The information was then used to refine outreach efforts as well as craft the “We Cardinal” advertising campaign.
A primary goal of the market research and the “We Cardinal” campaign was to increase awareness outside of the Great Lakes Bay Region of what SVSU has to offer, Boehm said.
“Public awareness of SVSU is low relative to our competitors,” Boehm said. “But two years later, we can demonstrably show that our public awareness is improving.”
Boehm feels that one major advantage of SVSU’s digital advertising push is the backend data provided by online advertising methods, enabling administrators to determine which advertisements and platforms were most effective.
“For our digital ads,” Boehm said, “we get data back on clickthrough rates, on engagement. … What we can show is that our clickthrough rates consistently have been double the national average of college and university advertisements.”
Boehm credits that higher-than-average engagement rate on the information gained through effective market research and by working with an effective media buyer who helps SVSU hone in on its online audience.
Restructuring Financial Aid
Another factor involved in SVSU’s recent increase in freshmen enrollment is the restructuring of financial aid packages for the 2018-2019 academic year.
According to Deborah Huntley, the SVSU provost and vice president for Academic Affairs, the first major change for freshmen financial aid was to increase academic scholarships by $1,000 each.
New opportunities for aid were also offered, including a new scholarship, the University Scholarship, that offers $2,000 to students who had a 3.0 GPA or better in high school.
The Saginaw Valley Opportunity Grant will also now be available to all incoming first-year students who qualify, and it is now renewable for up to four years.
The grant is offered to any first-year student who demonstrates financial need and does not have a President’s Scholarship. Students living on campus can receive up to $6,000 under the grant. Students living off campus with their parents can receive up to $5,000.
Huntley said SVSU decided to change their financial aid packages to help alleviate the burden of college costs on perspective students and their family.
“We recognized even our relatively low costs presented a barrier for some students and families, so we took steps to help students meet their financial commitments,” Huntley said. “By expanding and restructuring our scholarship offerings and financial aid, we are able to support our students and provide access to a college degree, which is an important part of our mission as a public university.”
Several factors are considered when packaging financial aid.
Huntley said that, every academic year, SVSU evaluates the effectiveness of its financial aid packages and makes changes based off the needs of incoming freshmen. However, academic scholarships are also available for students based on their academic performance in high school, including their SAT or ACT scores and their GPA.
Huntley said that, in the 2013 fiscal year, SVSU allocated $11.54 million to scholarships and financial aid. She said that represented 10 percent of SVSU’s operating budget. For the current fiscal year, SVSU allocated $18.85 million, which represented 15.2 percent of SVSU’s operating budget, Huntley said.
SVSU’s changes to its financial aid offerings helped keep the university competitive with those of other Michigan universities of similar size, Huntley said.
“We benchmarked similar public universities in the state of Michigan to ensure our academic scholarships and need-based aid offerings are comparable with peer institutions,” Huntley said.
Huntley believes the restructured financial aid packages will help students and their families pay for college despite the decreased amount of funding public universities receive from the state and federal government. The decrease in government funding plays a large factor in the increasing costs of tuition.
“We have made a significant commitment to support students and families by increasing the resources we devote to financial aid, as state and federal funding has not kept pace with rising costs,” Huntley said.