The Final Frontier

Phoenix and Denver are the latest (and possibly last) recruiting hotbeds for liberal arts colleges. Administrators now worry that they're running out of marketing moves.

May 25, 2012

Between 2001 and 2005, Augustana College enrolled roughly 3,500 freshmen. Only three of them came from Colorado.

These days, there are so many Coloradoans on campus that they're forming their own club. The class entering this fall will include 24 Colorado residents, following two years of 14 each in the freshman class.

Augustana’s dramatic growth in recruitment from Colorado is the result of a strategic marketing effort, embraced by several liberal arts colleges, to grow the college’s brand in the Denver metropolitan area, a region with few liberal arts colleges, skyrocketing public tuition, and significant growth in the college-going population.  

The Denver and Phoenix metropolitan areas, potentially along with Las Vegas, are the latest in a long line of “target” cities -- previously including places such as Atlanta, Dallas and Seattle -- that colleges whose traditional recruitment markets are shrinking have hoped would provide an enrollment boost.

But administrators worry that once these areas are tapped, few other locales exist for targeted recruitment. For that matter, they say, regional liberal arts colleges may be getting to a point where marketing efforts -- such as targeting new geographic regions or adding new sports or academic programs that appeal to full-paying or high-achieving prospective students -- might not be enough to keep the colleges financially viable. Several administrators said they  will probably employ such techniques only for two or three more years, just enough time to consider and carry out more substantive changes to their model.

“There is this big question of, what additional programs can we add to maintain steady state enrollments, or what existing and building markets can there be,” said W. Kent Barnds, vice president for enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana. “We’re getting to the point where we have to ask those tough questions.”

Demographic Questions

Augustana is one of hundreds of liberal arts colleges that have historically had a regional orientation in their student recruitment efforts.  Unlike the wealthiest, most well-known liberal arts colleges, such as Williams and Amherst, which tend to attract students from across the country, Augustana’s students predominantly come from five states in the Midwest: Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.

Where Augustana's Out-of-State Freshmen Come From, 2012




But most of those states are likely to see a decrease in their college-going population over the next few years. According to data from a 2008 report by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, Illinois’s high-school graduates seemingly peaked in 2008, as did the number of high-school graduates across the Midwest.

The Chicago metropolitan area was traditionally a major recruiting ground for Augustana and other Midwest colleges, and will probably continue to see some growth in high school graduates. But it is also seeing increased competition from regional liberal arts colleges on the East Coast, which are struggling with many of the same demographic challenges.

Where there is significant growth in students is in the Southwest, driven by internal migration and immigration. The number of high school graduates in Colorado is projected to grow by about 22 percent over the next decade, and the number in Arizona is projected to grow by about 31 percent. Other Southwestern and Western states such as Texas, Nevada, New Mexico and California are also projected to see increases in their college-going populations.

But Augustana is not going into all of the major metropolitan areas in these states. Barnds said the college has been methodical about picking where it is going, applying a fairly simple set of criteria.

First off, he said, having a direct flight to the area from the Quad Cities International Airport is important -- a significant limiting factor, as the airport flies directly to just 10 cities. There are no direct flights to anywhere on the West Coast, or any East Coast states except Florida and Georgia.

Barnds also said that having minimal competition in any given metropolitan area is also a plus, which helps explain the choice of Phoenix and Denver over other options such as Atlanta. Most Arizona high school students who go to college attend one of the state’s three large public universities. There are no private, nonprofit, four-year undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Colorado has two institutions that liberal arts colleges tend to think of as competitors -- Colorado College and the University of Denver -- but that is a small number compared to the state’s population. “When you look at Colorado, particularly the ‘front range’ part of the state, it’s primarily public universities,” Barnds said. “We look at that and we can say ‘Hey, we’ve got some distinction.’ "

Having some established regional presence, such as a large number of alumni, is also a positive, Barnds said.

Mining Towns

How a college like Augustana enters and recruits in a new city is methodical.

The college tends to lead with athletics, an aspect of the college that administrators think sets Augustana apart from competitors. Unlike many liberal arts colleges, Augustana has a football program, and it also has a reputation for producing Division III academic all-Americans. So the college has targeted athletes who are high-performing students but who might not have the ability or desire to play at the Division I level.

“What you need when you go into a new market is to lead with a program, some hook to get a student to take a look at Augustana,” Barnds said. The college has an athletics recruiter who spends several weeks in Denver over the course of the year meeting with students. Barnds added that recruiting athletes also helps put the college on other students’ radars.

Of the Coloradoans entering Augustana next fall, about two-thirds are athletes, compared to about one-third of the overall student body. Other than athletics, Barnds said the college also pays for guidance counselors to visit its campus and has sent faculty members to Colorado to work with high school students.



Augustana is far from the only college working the Denver market. Mark Moody, co-director of college counseling at Colorado Academy, a private high school in Denver, said he has seen a dramatic increase in the number of universities and colleges, particularly out-of-state liberal arts colleges, that are recruiting his students. Dozens of liberal arts colleges that tend to draw from a more regional market -- such as Linfield College in Oregon and Rollins College in Florida -- visited the high school this year. “Colorado is clearly a geographic area of interest around the country,” Moody said. The National Association for College Admission  Counseling, a group that brings together admissions officers and high school counselors, is holding its annual meeting in Denver in October.

Colorado Academy has the type of students that a lot of colleges are seeking these days. They’re high-achieving, and many are paying full tuition at the high-school level and are likely to be able to pay full tuition for college. Colorado Academy students are already enrolled in a small school, so they are likely to look for something similar, Moody said.

This year representatives from about 150 different colleges and universities visited Colorado Academy -- significantly more than the roughly 85 students who will graduate from the school this year. Moody says the number of recruiters has increased about 20 or 30 over the past two years.

Mark Hatch, Colorado College’s vice president for enrollment, said he has seen a significant growth in the amount of competition from colleges outside the region. “College fairs are more crowded,” he said. “All the time people tell us they’re coming west.”

He said that while he likes to “protect his backyard,” he doesn’t see the growth of liberal arts recruitment in the Denver area as a bad thing, particularly because it raises awareness of the liberal arts sector to families who might not be exposed to it. “One could argue that when we go to Boston, we’re better-known to families than when we’re in Denver. You can throw a rock and hit a good liberal arts college in Boston,” he said. “You get more students who are juniors and sophomores saying, ‘Where did Jimmy go last year? Isn’t there one of those schools an hour south of us?' ”

Nowhere Left to Go

The problem that colleges such as Augustana are starting to run into is that there are few untapped metropolitan areas left. Most either have a critical mass of liberal arts colleges or are seeing heavy recruitment from other, typically more local, colleges, so it would be tough for any liberal arts college to break through.

Barnds said Las Vegas and the Dallas-Fort Worth areas might hold promise, but beyond that, there are few places left to expand recruitment. “I think there might be one or two more markets, rather than seven or eight,” he said.

While the sheer numbers of high school graduates in places such as Denver and Phoenix are enticing, the population growth in those cities might not be among the groups that most colleges are looking for when they expand their reach. For many colleges, the recruitment growth is a way to either bulk up the quality of their classes their by drawing high achievers or to maintain their bottom lines with students who can pay full or close-to-full tuition. But the growth of high school students in the West is predominantly among low-income Hispanic and African American students.

“The reality is that the type of students that most colleges want to recruit doesn’t go that deep,” Hatch said. “Particularly when it comes to students of color, we as a country don’t have a good track record of getting them ready for private, selective colleges.”

Athletic programs that could be used to recruit students are also virtually tapped out. Augustana has 21 varsity teams. There are also not that many more academic programs to add without fundamentally changing the nature of the college.

Right now such short-term moves are holding off a significant change in how liberal arts colleges operate. As long as they can continue to tap into new groups of students who are willing to pay $40,000 in tuition for a liberal arts degree, then the college does not have to make substantial changes to how it operates.

Over the next few years, Augustana is planning to undergo a significant strategic planning initiative that will confront some of the major challenges the college's president, Steven C. Bahls, and others believe will affect colleges like theirs over the next few decades. Among them: how to incorporate technology into the curriculum, how to address declining interest in traditional liberal arts programs, and how to change the financial model to make it more sustainable.

The goal of the recruitment expansion is to buy the time to get that process completed.


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