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Pushing the Envelope

September 10, 2010

The entire admissions cycle can be one stress point after another these days at private colleges: Will enough students show interest? Will they visit? Will they apply? Will they enroll? (Public institutions have their own stress points these days, but they are more focused on keeping up with demand.)

At the University of Dayton this fall, the numbers are looking great -- 2,065 arrivals for the fall, about 300 more than the university has been seeking. And that followed an encouraging admissions cycle -- with more students visiting, more students applying, heightened academic quality and so forth.

Why such strong numbers?

According to Sundar Kumarasamy, vice president for enrollment management, it's all about pushing the envelope -- and he means just that, the envelope. One of the most successful strategies employed by the university involves an unusual arrangement with UPS and DHL that has allowed the university to send its viewbooks and other materials in envelopes with the UPS and DHL logos. Dayton isn't paying for express delivery of the tens of thousands of items it sends this way -- they are mailed through the U.S. Postal Service. But the university is licensing the right to use the envelopes from the two express mail services.

"We're sending a message that you are important" with the envelopes, Kumarasamy said. "We are saying that you are not going to be like bulk mail to us."

Obviously Dayton can't see what every prospective student does with his or her faux-express envelope, but the university thinks it has evidence that they are getting opened.

The university creates special landing pages that it promotes in its viewbooks, but not elsewhere. Before adopting the envelope strategy, the site would get about 2,000 visitors a week in the weeks following a big drop of the viewbooks. Now, the site gets 4,000 in the first week and 2,500 to 3,000 in the few weeks that follow. Because the site provides tools for the would-be students to identify themselves, note interests, and so forth -- all key to actually recruiting someone -- those gains are significant, and Dayton officials think they are due to in large part to the envelopes.

Kumarasamy said that these numbers have allowed the university to be more precise in deciding whom to mail to, and that cutting down on the volume (still in the tens of thousands) means that, financially, the licensing fee strategy for the envelopes isn't much of a cost in the end. (Citing his contracts with DHL and UPS, he declined to specify the fee.)

Like anyone in enrollment management, Kumarasamy is quick to say that he thinks the students ultimately enroll because they are sold on Dayton's quality and style of education. It is a Roman Catholic institution with a mix of liberal arts and professional programs, and it emphasizes nurturing students. Kumarasamy stressed that he's proud of the faculty and current students, proud of the message admissions officers offer, proud of the viewbook. But he said it's time for admissions officers to admit that those viewbooks on which they spend big bucks and agonize over ... are frequently never even opened.

"Students have just been desensitized," he said.

Kumarasamy has a favorite YouTube video to make his point: it shows a student attempting to pile all of his admissions brochures on a scale, and even while holding the stack, he can't pull it off before the pile collapses -- shortly before hitting 160 pounds.

Given the realities parodied by the video, Kumarasamy said, colleges and universities need to focus on packaging if they want anyone to read their materials. (Dayton's viewbook tries to stress intellectual engagement, stating on the cover "This book does not have all the answers" and then posing a series of provocative questions for would-be students to consider, such as "Do you know more about Lindsay Lohan than Darfur?" and "What will your future boss find on your Facebook page?")

But pleased as he is with the viewbook, Kumarasamy said that he is convinced that without the special envelopes, fewer people would be seeing it. He said he hasn't discussed the idea publicly until now -- in part out of a fear that if everyone else copied it, the approach would lose its effectiveness. But for now, he thinks the high schoolers he wants to reach are opening the mail.

 

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