Anatomy of an Educational Turnaround
by Gary Hamme
Dean of Enrollment and Career Management, Drexel University
Vice President for University Relations, Drexel University
George C. Dehne
President, George Dehne & Associates
When things go wrong for a college or university they can go very, very wrong. Such was the case for Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Drexel has a long and proud history. Founded in 1891 by industrialist Anthony J. Drexel, the University has gained national recognition in a range of areas. Highlights include, among others, (1) educational innovation in the preparation of engineers, (2) one of the nation's oldest and largest co-operative education programs (co-op is required for a Drexel degree), and (3) the use of cutting-edge technology throughout the Drexel educational experience (Drexel was the first university in the nation to mandate student access to a personal computer).
Yet in 1995, Drexel found itself in a precarious slump. Like many colleges, in a burst of exuberance in the 1980s, Drexel increased its tuition dramatically, driving many of its historical first-generation clientele to other less expensive institutions. First-year enrollment had dropped to approximately 950 students and the University could generate a four-year history of only about 4,200 applications annually, despite anearly one million dollar advertising budget. Although generously doled out, financial aid was not utilized strategically. Budget and staff cuts went clean to the bone. University morale was low.
Enter a new president, Constantine Papadakis, former dean of the School of Engineering at the University of Cincinnati. Taki, as the president is known around campus and throughout the Greater Philadelphia region, understood he had to increase full-time undergraduate enrollment, gain greater net revenue from the tuition, improve the recruitment of part-time and graduate students, reduce the number of students who voluntarily withdrew from the University and restore the stature in the public eye of a Drexel degree.
Fortunately, Taki did not believe these responsibilities should all fall on the backs of admissions and financial aid. In addition to increasing initiatives in these areas, he and his staff examined existing academic programs, how these could be repackaged, and what new programs could be introduced to enhance the value of the Drexel "product".
Shortly, after his arrival, Taki named Gary Hamme, then head of Cooperative Education and Career Services, as Dean of Enrollment and Career Management. Gary had accrued exactly one year of experience in admissions in an interim role some 10 years earlier.
When Gary arrived at his new office, he dusted off a report submitted to the former Drexel regime in September 1994 by George Dehne & Associates.
Taki, Gary, and George Dehne met and agreed on some broad strategies and goals. Examples of the resulting advertorials ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer, bringing many inquiries to the University admissions office.
The results were noteworthy. For the fall of 1997, Drexel received just over 8,900 applications. Drexel enrolled a freshman class of 1,750, and 400 transfer students. Net revenue of the full-time undergraduates increased 21 percent. Average enrolling freshman SAT scores increased by 25 points. The net tuition revenue increased more than $2,000 per new student. In addition, a palpable excitement about Drexel's success has grown rapidly in the Philadelphia region.
The following provides insights into this turnaround from both the consultant's and client's viewpoint.
The Consultant. Consulting is like a dance between client and consultant. A consultant may want to dance to rock while the client prefers jazz. The consultant needs to know when to take the lead or when to give the lead to the client. The two need not always be in perfect synchronization, but if one dances the rumba and the other the waltz, both are sure to tumble.
Drexel. As an institution, our observation of success resulting from utilizing consultants is quite mixed. Previous enrollment consultants' reports exist in the admissions files. Each report was a timeline approach, essentially intended to do more of what Drexel was already doing (which wasn't working), including more high school visits, more mailings, etc.
George Dehne's report, on the other hand, presented context and concepts useful in recruiting. Examples from this report included research on students who could better afford Drexel, the fact that so many entering freshmen are "undecided" about their choice of major, the idea of capturing information through an inquirer survey, and the concept that the only contacts that really matter are the ones that the students make with you. George's advice was down-to-earth, practical and deliverable. Our demonstrated success speaks volumes.
The Consultant. George Dehne & Associates takes the term "marketing" seriously. We do evaluate the admissions and financial aid offices, but we also consider ways of enhancing programs, suggest new programs and recommend ways to "package" activities. Additionally, we consider support to the recruitment effort from other areas within the institution, such as public relations, alumni affairs, and student services, among others.
Drexel. The 1994 report was most impressive. To a 10-year seasoned administrator at the University, it not only identified issues we already knew about admissions and the institution overall, but it disclosed a refreshing sense that tactics exist that can turn this situation around and, in some cases, quickly. This report called for nothing less than a paradigm shift in how admissions did its business. Suggestions included ways that all or various parts of the University might make themselves more attractive to prospective students. Some recommendations focused on programmatic issues, and even changes in institutional programs. Yet another kind of institutional recommendation dealt with issues of public perception. Dehne's report laid out a platform from which a novice enrollment dean could lead a turnaround.
The Consultant. Our immediate concern was Drexel's reliance on a single message -- preparation for a career immediately following college. Of course, the benefits of three six-month co-op experiences and Drexel's successful history of career placement made that choice obvious. Yet we knew that more and more prospective students were interested in graduate and professional school. The University was missing opportunities on a variety of fronts.In our report, we made several suggestions:
- Place more emphasis on graduate school preparation.
- Demonstrate that Drexel's co-op program serves as an excellent preparation for graduate and professional school.
- Develop a program for undecided students. The emphasis on careers, we suspected, threatened the student who had not yet decided on a major.
- Think about developing more four-year programs. In an era where expense has driven prospective students to find ways to cut the time to graduation, most of Drexel's programs were still set at the five-year mark, including three six-month co-op experiences.
- Be aware that the traditional liberal arts fields are making a come-back. Show how Drexel's co-op program can take the risk out of a traditional liberal arts degree.
Drexel. Once we implemented them, these suggestions dovetailed to a surprising degree. Our admissions literature (e.g., publications) utilized our renowned reputation in career preparation by emphasizing that Drexel can be a student's conduit to a successful career in more ways than one.
For example, Drexel Co-op serves as a great segue for a student seeking admission to selective graduate or professional schools. We cited selective graduate and professional programs (e.g., The University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School), quoting recent graduates on how 18 months of co-op experiences made the critical difference in admission to a graduate or professional school of their choice.
Working with the graduate faculty, we repackaged our B.S./ M.S. dual degree programs so that a student could complete both in five years, still including one year of co-op experiences. Drexel's graduate admissions now actively recruits our own qualified undergraduate students to enroll in the B.S./M.S. dual degree programs.
We addressed the undecided student concern by implementing formal programs for what Drexel now calls the "Still-Deciding Students". Coordinated by the Career Management Center along with the individual college advisors, these programs link vocational assessment and testing, co-op experiences, internships, externships, an alumni career network, and college advising. It is important to note that no less than 25 percent of 1997's entering freshmen are still-deciding students.
Expanding the number of four-year undergraduate programs raised a number of internal issues, particularly with our colleges who were fully committed to the Drexel Co-op experience as an integral and required component of the undergraduate degree. The result was the creation of a four-year degree program that required one six-month "internship" in the junior year. In this program, all other academic degree requirements are identical to the historical five-year programs. The impact? While applications to our five-year programs have grown impressively, 25 percent of the total applications are for the new four-year programs.
Each of the initiatives above created new interest in Drexel from high school seniors considering studies in the traditional liberal arts. The perceived added values of the six-month internship or 18-month co-op experiences linked with the still-deciding student program caused 1997 Arts and Sciences applications to increase 74 percent. This is 14 percent greater than Drexel's historically largest application attraction -- our nationally ranked College of Engineering.
The Consultant. Although it has been in existence for 90 years, cooperative education is a difficult concept to explain to prospective students. We knew the advantages of co-op, but we needed ways of explaining them to prospective students. Indeed, research told us that internships were more attractive to prospective students than co-op. We suggested several tactics.
Drexel. Our students and faculty were struck by the perception that internships were more attractive than co-op experiences, particularly given the program's high-quality delivery to students at Drexel. During campus focus groups, we evolved our approach -- Drexel Co-op: "The Ultimate Internship".
Interestingly enough, this distinctive tag line received positive reactions from both employers and high school students. In addition, it reinforced Drexel Co-op's acknowledged quality image with enrolled students as well as the faculty.
To ensure that prospects who took the time to fill out and return our inquirer questionnaire understood co-op/internships at Drexel, a GDA telemarketing representative called each prospect to reinforce the concept and encourage a campus visit. The callers also offered a newly created publication profiling current co-op students from various academic majors.
The Consultant. We knew that everyone had to pitch in to help with student recruitment. Mobilizing the campus was essential if Drexel expected to attract the kinds of students it sought. We made suggestions for mobilizing the security, maintenance, and student services staff as well as the faculty.
Drexel. Taki recognized that the faculty's low morale in Fall 1995 might make them skeptical to the idea of extensive active participation on Drexel's behalf to turn the enrollment corner by Fall 1996. He initiated an incentive program that would award each academic department 10 percent of its increased net tuition revenue over Fall 1995 to be used for departmental "quality of life" purposes. In addition, I set aside $150,000 of the enrollment budget to be used to support new college/dean-approved initiatives coming out of the academic departments that would enhance enrollment objectives.
Taki also made changes in other areas. He contracted with a new campus security firm that had earned a strong reputation in customer service with both high-caliber corporate clients and major professional sporting events. He placed emphasis on the appearance of the campus. He committed needed resources in support of student life and student services. All in all, he successfully challenged the total community to participate in the turnabout.
The Consultant. GDA preaches a practice called "prospect management." Prospect management is different from the traditional "mail and pray" admissions program in two ways.
- The emphasis is on converting the most likely inquirers to applicants. Most admissions programs concentrate on converting applicants to enrollees. Yet our studies show that fewer than three of 10 students change the order of college preference after they apply to a college (unless, of course, they are rejected). Therefore, the goal of prospect management is to convert inquirers to applicants who view Drexel University as their first choice.
- Recruiting students is the responsibility of the managers of the recruitment territory. The director's role is to assure that the admissions counselors are working primarily with inquirers who are most likely to enroll and be admitted. In other words, the centralized process should enable the director to screen inquirers and determine interest. The decentralized process should support admissions counselors to work with those inquirers in their territories who are most likely to apply and enroll.
To carry out an effective prospect management program, the operation needs three things:
- An excellent manager of people. Gary certainly filled that role.
- Strong management information support.
- A disciplined staff -- both recruitment and clerical -- that knew what to do and which students to focus on.
Drexel. My predecessor's response to mandated budget cuts was to reduce the support staff. The result was a response time of a minimum of two weeks (or maybe never) to an inquirer's contact with us. Customer service was not the priority.
One of our first initiatives was to institute a 24-hour response time to any inquiry. We announced it and the faculty tested it. Telephones were answered by humans and voice-mail messages were returned in the same day received. Mailings were previously handled by the University's central mailroom. These services were brought back under Enrollment. I immediately expanded the role of my proven co-op operations director to include enrollment operations. We set standards, implemented training for all staff levels, and used performance appraisals to revamp the organization.
In Spring 1996, we engaged a new director of undergraduate admissions who had demonstrated success in utilizing prospect management. Through her efforts and the sustained customer service approach, Drexel was able to move to the next level and achieve the enrollment success of Fall 1997.
The Consultant. Although prospect management has seven key elements, at the outset, we decided to focus on just three with Drexel. We believe colleges should walk before they run.
The three areas we focused on in the first two years included:
- Getting more prospective students to campus.
- Learning more about each prospect.
- Screening the inquiring pool for those who showed the most interest.
We know and instinct tells all of us that the campus visit is the only real predictor of enrollment. The likelihood of a student enrolling who does not visit is very slim. Usually six out of 10 high school seniors who visit a college or university campus will apply and about three out of 10 who visit will enroll. It is our view, that the best use of funds for admissions is getting students to campus rather than sending staff out to visit high schools or attend college fairs (except in the local area).
Drexel. A seasoned senior member of the admissions staff was put in charge of all campus visit activities. In August 1996, we launched the half-day visit program where we moved away from the standard "tour and interview" model to a program that encouraged families to spend at least a half-day on campus. These visits included information sessions with staff from admissions, co-op, and financial aid, an interview, lunch, a campus tour and the ability to sit in on class or meet with a faculty member and/or coach.
The program gets rave reviews. In the 11 months ended July 1997, more than 6,850 students and parents participated in the half-day visit program -- a 60 percent increase over the full prior year. We also realigned the travel budget for undergraduate admissions so that we spent our dollars bringing students to campus rather than sending admissions staff out on the road. We say, "Travel is a dinosaur." We elect to expend dollars toward busing students to campus. This summer and fall, visitation activity is augmented by GDA's telemarketing calls to students to encourage them to visit campus throughout the summer and during the fall.
The Consultant. GDA has learned, and logic tells you, that the more you know about a student's ability, academic and extracurricular interests, the more likely you are to convert that student to applicant status and, ultimately, matriculation. Comprehensive information provides numerous openings for continuing the "dialogue" necessary for success.
Drexel. The comprehensive information form (CIF) is included with the first packet of material we send to an inquirer. It asks for information in five essential areas: 1) the student's academic profile, i.e. GPA, RIC, SATs or ACTs, 2) life-long career goal and major interest, 3) the characteristics most important in choosing a college, 4) areas for which further information is desired, i.e. Philadelphia, the still deciding option, Drexel Co-op and 5) information on the activities s/he plans to participate in during college.
We then customize our approach by initially sending a "fat letter" that includes much of the information the person has checked off on his/her CIF. This letter is followed by "love notes," customized responses and phone calls throughout the year from the territory manager. This complements the individualized information sent at the initial point of the recruitment cycle.
The Consultant. Another key to prospect management is managing information such that the admissions staff can focus on those students who demonstrate the most interest. Materials mailed to students and even telephone calls made to them are primarily passive. On the other hand, if a student does something such as return a card, seek out an admissions counselor, submit an SAT score and so forth, that student is demonstrating continued interest. That is why the most important contacts with the institution are those that are self-initiated (telephone and letter inquirers, standardized test scores). The more contacts a student initiates, the more interest s/he is demonstrating,and the more likely s/he is to apply and enroll.
Drexel. We have a reporting mechanism that allows us to see how prospects "convert" to applicants based on p-count (person-initiated count). Last year, 93 percent of the students with nine or more self-initiated contacts actually submitted an application. Territory managers use this information throughout the year to work with a certain level of prospects that they know are likely to apply. Also, by moving prospects to the next p-count level, the manager makes the prospect more likely to apply. For example, mailings in the fall may only go to students that have a 3-count of better (thereby saving postage and printing costs) and an extraordinary amount of time.
The Consultant. Next we turned our attention to financial aid, leveraging, and strategic use of merit scholarships. GDA called in its specialist in this area to work with Drexel's enrollment management and financial aid offices.
Drexel. GDA's specialist taught us to make better use of our financial aid dollars. By using leveraging techniques, we are now able to use financial aid dollars strategically to help achieve the University's enrollment objectives. For example, financial aid leveraging has played a large role in increasing the average gross income of our current class from $47,000 in 1 995 to $63,000 in 1997. It was also instrumental in the 25 point increase in average SATs of our incoming class.
The Consultant. We felt Drexel needed a promotional vehicle that would take advantage of Drexel's technological and career-oriented programs. We discovered long ago that a center or institute that addresses an issue of interest to the public gains attention on a regular basis for a college or university. With Drexel's long history of innovation and technological orientation we suggested that the University "adopt the future."
Drexel. We have created the Drexel University Center for Employment Futures, the first-ever American center to apply the interdisciplinary tool of futurism to both employment and work world changes. Futurism employs trend data, computer models, and information gleaned from wide-ranging sources to create forecasts and scenarios. It can help individuals and groups improve the quality of their future forecasts.
With its long tradition of co-operative education and applied technology, plus its foundation in the arts and sciences, Drexel is uniquely positioned to undertake a continuing program of research, analysis, and dissemination in the area of employment futures. Among the University's faculty are nationally recognized futurists and authorities on employment and work place issues.
In June, Drexel conducted a national poll of 2,000 teenagers to determine their perceptions of the employment futures they will face when they complete their formal education. Specifically, the survey probed their employment horizons and career preferences. They were asked about the skills and education they feel they will need to be successful. They were also questioned about anticipated lifestyles. To date, results of the poll were used by CBS radio nationally (in two formats), CNN and CNN Headline News, three all-news stations on the East Coast and "ABC Evening News." The print media results were equally impressive including USA Today, Associated Press, the 350-paper Scripps-Howard chain and the New York Times.
Equally exciting, the director of the new center has been invited to participate in several conferences on young people and employment. He is has also been invited to sit on the Board of Directors of a national educational organization.
The Consultant. We also urged Drexel to gain visibility in regional as well as targeted national high schools. We suggested that they focus on the future, technology, and the activities of the Center for Employment Futures described above.
Drexel. For the first phase of this effort, we developed and distributed two service posters, along with a teaching tool for each. One focuses on technology and the second focuses on cutting-edge civilizations of the past, present, and future. Targeted for distribution were the science department chairs and the social science department chairs at high schools in Drexel's primary and secondary high school markets. Tertiary high school markets were also considered. A reply mechanism was included in the initial poster mailing that allowed the teacher to indicate whether s/he would like to receive a "teaching tool" on the particular topic.
The posters were mailed to 7300 high schools in targeted areas. More than 3500 teachers have requested the teaching tool and asked to be kept on the Drexel mailing list.
The Consultant. Retaining students was another area in which we offered recommendations. As the president reminded us, increasing retention by only one percent resulted in about a half million dollars of spendable funds.
Drexel. All freshmen and transfer students were called by GDA's telemarketing team in the fall and spring of the first year to assess how they were adjusting to Drexel. Student feedback indicated a high level of appreciation for these calls. These students were generally satisfied with their Drexel experience.
Their complaints revolved around the food (not spicy enough) and academic advising (they wanted more contact with their academic advisors). Students were rated by the callers on their likelihood of withdrawal. That information was passed along to the assistant deans in each of the colleges to intervene as soon as possible. Student suggestions to improve Drexel were passed along to the Provost's Committee on Retention Issues. Retention of new students has been increase by five percent to 85%.
The Consultant. Recently, we turned our attention to part-time undergraduate and graduate recruitment. To kick this off we needed a vehicle to tout the enrollment surge at Drexel and remind the public in the Philadelphia metro area that Drexel was a force in serving the people and students of the region. We also wanted to use the successes in undergraduate admissions to remind part-time undergraduate and graduate students that Drexel was a great option. We created the theme, "The Right University. The Right Time," and suggested a newspaper insert to lead off the program.
Drexel. To raise the University's profile, Taki came up with the concept of a full-page ad in The Philadelphia Inquirer. The result was a series of advertorials depicting Drexel's story that ran in the Inquirer's first news section over a period of four weeks. It started with a double truck (two page) spread on September 4, followed by one full-page advertorial on each of the following three Thursdays. We also placed a modest amount of collateral underwriting support for "All Things Considered," "Marketplace" and "Morning Edition" on the local PBS and all-news radio stations the day before and the morning the advertorials appeared.
The advertorials included the following: Drexel's growth and recent successes, "What American Teens Are Saying" (results of Center for Employment Futures national poll), features on Drexel's part-time undergraduate and graduate programs, institutional measures of excellence, the University's commitment to (and economic impact on) greater Philadelphia, Drexel at a glance, alumni profiles, and so forth.
The alumni office at Drexel has heard from several hundred alumni enthusiastic about the University's bold move. The President has heard numerous unsolicited positive comments from the movers and shakers of Philadelphia.
Most importantly, the percentage of men and women who have inquired about part-time undergraduate or graduate programs has increased 116 percent over the previous year.
The Consultant. We were determined to create enthusiasm for Drexel on a variety of levels. Our research also tells us that name recognition is how most people determine quality and prestige in a college or university. Gaining name recognition among young people should be a priority of any college. We, therefore, urged Drexel to produce some toy that was relevant for the University, but would be greeted with enthusiasm by children and their parents. The objective was to create a demand for the toy by distributing it at sporting events, parades, through contests for young people and in schools.
Drexel. In time for Christmas of 1997, we had produced Mario the Magnificent, a "beanie-baby-like" dragon. The dragon is the Drexel mascot, so in addition to being cute and cuddly, Mario is blue and gold, the University's colors. It is too soon to determine the impact of Mario, but we do know that they are incredibly popular with those children who have received them and sales to alumni have been brisk. We don't expect enthusiasm for the dragon to last until these young people begin searching for a college, but we do suspect they will remember the name Drexel emblazoned on their former toy.
The Consultant. In our initial report to Drexel we urged the University to open satellite campuses for part-time students. Drexel did us one better and opened a site in Wilmington, Delaware, at the request of the mayor and city council. We set out with Drexel to "sell" engineering and education programs at Wilmington as well as assess the interest of the likely participants in other educational options at the Wilmington facility.
Drexel. In consultation with Mr. Dehne, we took the following steps.
To alert engineers to the new engineering and business program offered in Wilmington, we mailed a personal letter to all engineers in the region, urging them to contact the University (via business reply card, telephone or e-mail) and attend a reception. Roughly 200 engineers responded.
To promote Wilmington's education program, we mailed a similar letter to people whom we identified as working in education. About 400 teachers and administrators responded.
A short lead-time made it difficult to conduct a large market study. Instead we opted for a technique designed to 1) inform residents about the Wilmington campus, 2) collect names of those interested in more information and 3) gain information on interests and possible new programs for the area. In August, we mailed 120,000 self-mailers including a business reply card to areas we had targeted as likely to have prospective students. To date, 5,500 cards have been returned.
The Consultant. To attract full-time graduate students to Drexel, we recommended developing articulation agreements with liberal arts colleges that had no graduate programs. The articulations are designed to give the participating colleges an admissions and financial advantage.
Drexel. With the start of classes in September, the graduate faculty working in concert with the graduate admissions staff are opening dialogues with a select group of private colleges in Pennsylvania. Our intent is to recruit students through these articulations for fall 1998.
The Consultant. If we're still using the dance metaphor for a consultant-client relationship, working with Drexel isn't exactly "Swan Lake", but our dance with them has been both exciting and fulfilling for us. Several things made the Drexel turnaround work so well:
The President recognized that it was not just up to admissions and financial aid to restore Drexel to its full glory.
Gary and his staff had no bad habits. They knew little about student recruitment and they recognized the fact. They did not challenge our recommendations with "we have never done it that way before."
Drexel's staff was creative. When we gave them a concept or theory, they made it Drexel-specific.
Gary, Taki and the Drexel staff were not averse to risktaking. Everyone knew the University had to take risks to reach its goals. In higher education where risktaking is rarely considered, this attitude was a welcome relief.
Now, as every good consultant should, we give the last word to the client.
Drexel. This is where I'm supposed to tell you how wonderful George and his associates are. Well, the proof to everyone is visible in our remarkable results. I must admit that we have fun working with George and his associates. And we are collectively cooking up new tactics to achieve our long-term strategy: more higher- quality students, improved retention, and net tuition revenue.
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