Starting with Admission: Planting the Seed for Lifetime Affinity

Beginnings are a critical time -- you can plant important seeds for future constituency with some deliberate planning around how you will convey messages regarding awareness, gratitude, and giving to students during their transition into the institution.

In this article, a university president, three enrollment managers, and a thought leader in institutional advancement offer their advice on steps that universities can take during the admissions process to invite new students to see themselves as active members of the university community and lifetime stakeholders in the university -- to take pride in their future alma mater from day one.

Prior to Admission

In fact, you can start engaging potential students in the community and culture of your institution even before day one. MIT offers a case study on how to do this effectively, having recently seen success in engaging prospects and applicants in the culture of the institution even prior to admittance by rethinking the admissions website. Now a "Web Portal and Community," the site features student, staff, and alumni bloggers. What has worked well for MIT is the openness of the blog.

"Invite student, staff, and alumni bloggers to post not only advice for the admissions process but also let them talk about their lives at the institution. Give a window into campus life and culture and even the challenges students face and overcome. Prospects and applicants can comment, ask questions, and engage bloggers in dialogue online."
Stuart Schmill, Dean of Admissions, MIT

Besides a likelihood of boosting yield, this approach allows you a uniquely open channel for members of your campus community to communicate your brand and their own pride in the institution -- and an opportunity for your applicants to begin connecting with your community.

When You Offer Admission

More institutions are moving away from sending a form letter of acceptance in a No. 10 envelope and are finding ways to communicate an offer of admission that are intended to establish a more personal connection with the new student. A 2009 article in US News cited practices such as:

  • Sending a link to a congratulatory video (Elon University)
  • Including in the admissions packet a signed certificate of admission that the student can frame on their wall (Baylor University, Rutgers University, Elon University, and Mercyhurst College)

These institutions are relying on more than just glitz to make the connection. We interviewed W. Kent Barnds, vice president of enrollment, communication, and planning at Augustana College, and Chris Coons, director of admissions at Mercyhurst College, about their core strategies. Here is what they advise.

First, make sure that your offer of admission packet includes messaging around the university's mission and brand promise (e.g., a handwritten note from the president and the mission statement on cardstock), as well as material customized to the student's interests (e.g., dance or athletic brochures).

"Make sure the student knows they are not just a number. This generation of student wants to be connected -- respond to that. Whether you are a small liberal arts college or a research university, demonstrate that you have taken the time to respond to their interests."
Chris Coons, Mercyhurst College

Customizing an admissions packet to the student's interests does take time, but it is time well-invested. You want these students to care about your institution and to care about being members of your community; at the beginning of their relationship with your institution, show that you care about them.

Second, rather than leave a communication gap between acceptance and the student's arrival on campus, provide intentional and periodic communications with your newly accepted students. For example, follow up with a questionnaire that asks students to reaffirm their passions and interests and signal what they would like to accomplish while enrolled. "Use that information," Barnds adds, "to make the right connection between a member of your community and each accepted student.

Also, communicate the institution's brand promise and invite students to engage by sending a series of letters to students and their parents from different constituents in the campus community:

  • A congratulatory letter from the president, welcoming them to the community
  • A letter from the provost, talking about the academic commitment they are making
  • A letter from the head of student life, introducing the student to residence life and co-curricular opportunities
  • A student-to-student letter from the president of the student body
  • A parent-to-parent letter, addressed to the admit's parent, from the parent of a current student
  • A letter from a young alum, talking about the experience they had at the college, how it prepared them for their current career, and how the college continues to support them (this can be further customized by academic program)

At Mercyhurst College, each of these letters is sent about a week apart. Staggering the letters rather than sending them in a batch allows you to keep persistently in touch with the student before their arrival on campus -- it's a high-touch approach.

Stuart Schmill at MIT also recommends finding ways to facilitate connections among the new class themselves, such as:

  • A Facebook page for the admitted class, where students can begin meeting each other online
  • During the admissions tour, match groups of new students with a host selected based on their interests; in effect, this invites them to form or explore affinity groups from their first arrival on campus

The Admissions Tour

Here is another idea. At Lafayette College, the admissions tour concludes not in the admissions office (where the tour begins), but in the alumni center. In such a setting, introduce students to the services and events that will be available to them from their alma mater throughout their lives. Give students the opportunity to meet and speak with alumni, and demonstrate the message that the institution and its students make lifetime commitments to each other. Robert Massa, vice president for communications at Lafayette College, calls this an invitation into a "culture of reciprocity."

This first encounter with the institution's alumni is also an opportunity to discuss how students can eventually give back. Jim Langley, president of Langley Innovations, speaks to the importance of having a "graceful talk" with students about intergenerational transfer.

"It isn't about fundraising. The theme is that you have been given a gift by previous generations that believed in this institution and indirectly believe in you. They have given their time, talent, and treasure. You will see evidence of their contributions all around you, not just in names on buildings but in scholarships, in the programmatic opportunities you have. What will you do with this gift? How will you give to the next generation?"
Jim Langley, Langley Innovations

Convocation: A Rite of Passage

Langley adds that approaching the student's transition into the institution with this message and this philosophy "begs a rite of passage" to impress upon students the significance of their enrollment as a life transition.

Langley is a strong advocate for holding a formal student convocation. "Don't assume that students want everything to be hip," he warns. "They want a sense of tradition, that they are entering an important stage. Ask them."

Based on his own research, Langley suggests offering incoming students:

  • A formal procession, with faculty in cap and gown
  • Significant talks about the institution they are becoming a part of, what that institution believes in, and what it will do for them
  • Interactions with alumni parents -- "invite them as marshalls, impress on students the multigenerational aspect of the institution, and the transfer of caring and concern from one generation to the next"
  • A discussion of the institution's values and honor code

It's important to speak with students about the type of relationship they will have with the institution both while they are there -- living and fulfilling the institution's values -- and after commencement. Langley concludes: "Convocation can greatly impress on students that they are in a life transition, that they are stakeholders in the success of the institution, and that as beneficiaries they will also have a stake in giving back. Without addressing this in a convocation, a moment is missed. You don't want to be heavy-handed, but you also don't want to make the mistake of not speaking the message at all."

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY: RETURNING TO THE MOMENT

Georgetown takes the additional step of recording the convocation and then sending a DVD to alumni during the first year after graduation, as they are beginning their career. With the DVD comes a note from the president inviting them to remember their first day on campus and how far they have come, conveying that the university will continue to serve and support them, and making the ask for a gift to help support and serve the next generation. "Better than the standard appeal to young alumni," Langley notes, "this message conveys a reciprocal relationship and emphasizes that alum and institution are working toward a common cause."

ELON UNIVERSITY: PLANTING A LITERAL SEED

At Elon, where the oak is an institutional symbol, students are given an acorn at convocation to represent the beginning of their relationship with the university. At commencement, students are given a seedling with a talk about the growth they have experienced during their time on campus and the growth yet to be expected in future years.

The President's Role in Opening the Conversation

In the fall of 2009, the California University of Pennsylvania implemented the Academic Impressions student philanthropy model, launching their program with an extended student orientation structured around their student philanthropy message. Angelo Armenti, Jr., Cal U's president, relates the program to author Stephen Covey's leadership principle, "In order for relationships to be sustained, both parties must benefit." Armenti recognizes that as institutions of higher education ask students to make lifetime commitments to their alma maters, their alma maters must also make that same commitment to students.

To enact this mutual commitment, Armenti asks students to bring one dollar to convocation and then holds a raffle. "We don't need their money, we need scholarships for other students," Armenti remarks. Besides the raffle, Armenti invites students to see themselves as stakeholders in the institution by inviting the freshmen to sign a pledge to "forge and maintain a lifelong relationship" with Cal U. In return, Armenti signs a pledge to the students that Cal U would earn a lifelong relationship with each student through a series of commitments to them. Examples of the commitments include:

  • Striving to make their diplomas ever more valuable with each year that passes
  • Providing students with lifelong services (career services, networking, etc.)

"I make it explicit what this university will do to earn their lifelong relationship with us. This pledge has to come from the president. It doesn't have the same value if it comes from the registrar or another officer. It can only come from the president."
Angelo Armenti, California University of Pennsylvania