An Unlikely Success in Admissions

To succeed in admissions this year, conventional wisdom holds that colleges (public and private alike) should be famous and hard to get into. Why is St. Norbert succeeding?

May 24, 2021
(St. Norbert College)

We've all heard the conventional wisdom about this year's admissions class: students will still travel, far, if they get into Harvard or Stanford University. Or the University of California, Berkeley, or the University of Virginia. Or maybe to a college in a hip urban area. But other than those categories, this year of the pandemic is likely to be a tough one for colleges seeking students.

St. Norbert College would not seem likely to have a good admissions year. It admits the vast majority of the students who apply. It is located in De Pere, Wis. (a small city near Green Bay), which gets quite cold for much of the year. It has distinctions, of course. It's a liberal arts college, but that hasn't been helping colleges outside the Amherst and Swarthmore-type institutions. It's the only Norbertine institution of higher education in the world, named for Norbert of Xanten, founder of the Norbertine order, born in Germany in 1080. But that's hardly a driver for enrollment.

So why does St. Norbert College have 609 people who have committed as freshmen for the fall? St. Norbert had a target of 560, and President Brian J. Bruess said that the college typically isn't hurt by summer melt. In fact, he said he expects St. Norbert to gain as many students as it loses to summer melt, or a few more, meaning it could top its all-time record for a class of 620. Last year, as the pandemic was starting, the freshman class had only 430 students.

Not only is St. Norbert landing more students, it is attracting more diverse array of students. The incoming class is 17 percent minority, a low figure for much of higher education. But for St. Norbert, that's up from 13 percent last year, and an all-time record.

This is also on track to be tied for the most academically prepared class, with a high school grade point average of 3.57.

So how is it that St. Norbert is smiling while so many other colleges are suffering?

Bruess said that one key factor was that the college was open this entire academic year, and closed to students only last spring when the pandemic first broke out in the United States.

"The prospective students noticed this and commented on it," he said. "The campus visit is so important."

"We re-engineered the entire tour -- focusing on what they could see safely."

Mark Selin, executive director of enrollment and marketing, said, "People really wanted those visits. We had to make it work, and we did."

Of course, the college had safety protocols in place, with social distancing and face masks. When the college restored campus tours (last June, before most other colleges), it had special conditions attached, originally escorting only one family at a time. But throughout the last year, families commented on the fact that the college offered the tours.

On Presidents Day, the college came up with the idea that Bruess would lead the tours, and he led two families around the campus in 12-degree weather. The families (who were friends) were touring three colleges. One of the other colleges closed because of the weather, and one closed tours that day because of COVID-19. St. Norbert enrolled the students.

"We wanted not to get mired in crisis management," Bruess said. The college had to take COVID-19 seriously, he said, but it could also move ahead on other priorities.

One of the college's goals, given its location in the upper Midwest, is to diversify where students come from. The local and near-local population is declining, especially compared to the South and the West. In last year's class, St. Norbert had 11 states represented. This year, it had 24 states represented.

Selin said much of the credit for that success is with sports coaches (28 percent of the student body are athletes). By recruiting in new states, he said, they hope they will create momentum that will help next year and beyond. "We've been trying to expand our base," he said, "and this year we really had opportunities."

He described a campus visit from an athlete from Alaska. The college managed to get a local alumnus who majored in the field the student wanted to study to meet with him. The student enrolled.

In terms of spending on aid, St. Norbert didn't break the bank.

Its discount rate is a little below 50 percent, below the national average, and Bruess said it has been stable. And the college has exceeded its goal for net tuition revenue and per-student net tuition revenue goal.

For a college that admits most of the students who apply, the key is doing enough things to attract a larger applicant base. Bruess said the numbers show the college doing that.

  Applications Admits Admit Rate
2019 3,352 2,661 79 percent
2020 3,346 2,815 84 percent
2021 4,057 3,444 84 percent

"We really spent more time searching for students, and that paid off," Bruess said.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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