Courtesy of West Texas A&M University
Walter Wendler’s voice was still hoarse on Tuesday, days after he finished recording thousands of personalized videos for admitted students at West Texas A&M University.
For weeks, Wendler squeezed recording sessions in between meetings and other appointments. From behind his desk, he watched a teleprompter slowly scroll through the names and desired majors of students who had been admitted to the public regional university in Canyon, Tex. Wendler completed 3,000 videos, each 16 seconds to 19 seconds long, over the course of 200 hours. He didn't have a script, but most videos followed a similar format.
"I'm the president of WT, and I know that you've been accepted into the journalism program for the fall semester. We really hope to see you on campus. Canyon is a great place to be," Wendler said, reciting an example of one of the videos.
Wendler's effort might sound impossible, unnecessary or just plain tedious to many college presidents. But to Wendler, it's an opportunity to provide a human connection for students who may not have had a chance to visit campus during the pandemic or meet anyone at the university. For some students, a personal connection could be the difference between enrolling at West Texas A&M or walking away.
Wendler has undertaken aggressive enrollment strategies before. In the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2019, he visited 130 Texas high schools across the state. During his tour he reached 20,000 students and traveled about 15,000 miles.
“Universities have become, in some ways, bureaucratic brick walls,” Wendler said. “As you expose students to the university and talk about the institution and why they might be interested, I just think it’s got to be personal.”
After a year when birthday parties, college classes and church services all moved online, the growing popularity of videoconferencing and messaging platforms indicates that people are looking to recreate in-person connections. Cameo, an app that allows users to pay celebrities for personalized video messages like the ones Wendler created for free, had its moment during the pandemic -- the four-year-old company is now worth $1 billion. This spring, admissions officers and presidents are looking to create that same virtual one-on-one connection with potential students.
Personalization in admissions is effective, said Robert Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, an enrollment consulting firm (and an opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed). Admissions offices used to curate and print individualized brochures and mail them to students. Now, email, social media and video have made personalization easier.
“Who doesn’t like to be called by their first name and to be acknowledged with specific detail about one’s hometown or one’s major or the sport that one participates in?” Massa said. “It does make a difference, no doubt about it.”
New and ambitious strategies like Wendler’s have emerged during the pandemic. Colleges rush to keep the students they have and jockey for new students as enrollment across the country has dipped, said Jerry Lucido, executive director of the University of Southern California Center for Enrollment Research, Policy and Practice (and an opinion contributor to Inside Higher Ed). This spring, enrollment at public, four-year universities like West Texas A&M has fallen 2.9 percent on average, data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show.
“They have had to find new ways to communicate with new and continuing students,” Lucido said. “They had to do this overnight, and they had to do it in ways that they thought would be true to their mission.”
West Texas A&M’s personal admissions outreach is in part an effort to pre-empt enrollment declines, Wendler said. For years, the regional university saw steady enrollment growth, but its student head count has recently plateaued around 10,000. Wendler and other university officials worry about the declining number of available college students and hope that continued outreach will help sustain the university’s enrollment.
“We perform a role up here, and I think we need to make sure that role is pronounced clearly to people,” Wendler said. “I think people -- even from urban settings and more densely populated areas -- might appreciate the opportunities and the engagements and the personal relationships that can be built in this kind of environment.”
Lucido is studying the success of personalized admissions strategies during the COVID-19 pandemic. Preliminary research shows that institutions that personalize communications to students have had more success in retaining students and admitting new students, he said.
Enrollment strategies like personalized videos won’t work for every institution or every student, Massa said. It’s unlikely that a video would convince a student who was planning to attend an Ivy League university to attend a regional college close to home. Personalized messaging more often works with students who are deciding between several similar institutions.
“If a student gets into one of the most selective colleges in the country, no amount of personalization, I don’t think, from a school that is far below that in terms of brand recognition is going to make a student move from an über-selective school to a less selective school,” Massa said.
Colleges that don’t often personalize student outreach may see a bigger payoff if they opt to send personal videos or other communications, Lucido said. Small, private colleges are often expected to provide personal outreach to potential students. Large research universities or regional universities are not.
“The notion that a regional institution in Texas is reaching out in this personalized way may be somewhat surprising,” Lucido said. “They may benefit differentially from it because it would surprise students.”
In-person outreach like Wendler’s high school visits or one-on-one phone calls are also more effective than technology-based outreach, Massa said.
“It’s absolutely more effective because I'm reaching out to you as an individual and you’re getting my attention 100 percent,” he said.
It's too soon to say how Wendler's personalized videos will play out for West Texas A&M. So far, the university has sent out about two-thirds of the videos Wendler recorded.
In the future, Wendler doesn’t plan to record quite as many videos for admitted students. The editing and closed-captioning process has been labor-intensive. Instead, he plans to create short videos that are customized for each of the university’s colleges.
He also hopes to resume some high school visits, and he will encourage other university leaders, including deans, vice presidents and senior faculty members, to do personal outreach.
“I would never ask anybody to do anything that I didn’t,” Wendler said. “I want to, by setting an example, encourage others to do the same thing.”