The National Student Clearinghouse uncovered that our nation saw an additional 3.5% drop in undergraduate enrollment since last fall, with a 3.1% drop of enrolled first-year students this fall. Franciscan University of Steubenville, located in Steubenville, OH, is a small, private, catholic, non-profit institution. This fall, the state’s small private non-profit institutions saw a 2.2% decrease in enrollment, yet Franciscan welcomed one of its largest undergraduate classes of all time. I recently had the pleasure of connecting with Corinne Purcell, Franciscan University’s Associate Director of Admissions, to learn more about their success. Corinne shared key insight into how her institution leveraged virtual engagement as a key tool to engage, enroll, and yield students during a time when national enrollment numbers are struggling, and how other small, private niche institutions can do the same.
Read the full transcript below, or use one of the following links to jump to a specific section:
- Expanding target audience through virtual programming
- Franciscan’s enrollment success
- Hybrid enrollment strategies
- Virtual engagement recommendations
How has your approach to engaging students as a small, private Catholic university shifted due to the pandemic? Specifically, who traditionally are your target students, and how have you expanded your target audience through virtual programming?
As a national university pulling students from all 50 states and several countries, we have an extensive number and variety of students who are interested in Franciscan. Along with the logistical challenges of connecting with such a widespread audience in person, Franciscan University also boasts a strong Catholic identity and mission, which attracts a particularly niche student looking for that type of environment and education for college. So our recruitment cannot be limited to just traveling to large numbers of high schools and college fairs, along with adding to the barrage of mail and emails students receive from colleges, however necessary a role that may play in recruitment and marketing.
On the other hand, regular virtual programming allows us to connect with students and families across the country and throughout the world who are interested in a Franciscan University education before they even get to visit campus. Although an in-person campus visit is one of our highest predictors for conversion to enrollment, these virtual events allow prospective students to preview our highlights and opportunities, meet admissions staff and real students, hear from our impressive faculty, and draw them into our culture before they even set foot on our campus.
“…virtual events allow prospective students to preview our highlights and opportunities, meet admissions staff and real students, hear from our impressive faculty, and draw them into our culture before they even set foot on our campus.”
I love how you mentioned the fact that your institution has a niche audience. Other institutions, especially with small student bodies, can really benefit from uncovering the characteristics of their niche audience, and intentionally targeting that type of student in their programming.
Focusing back on how you mentioned virtual programming, can you dive deeper into how the digital evolution has allowed you to stand out in the virtual world?
The transition to virtual programming puts Franciscan University in the homes and hands of prospective students in a more real and tangible way than ever before. Prospective students receive mail and email marketing from colleges every day, boasting of excellent academics, great community, and new opportunities. Our regular and consistent online virtual presence helps Franciscan to stand out from the crowd by giving prospective students actual insight into what we have to offer from first-hand experiences and direct contact with faculty, coaches, alumni, and students.
Additionally, it is worth mentioning the role that our virtual platform played in our success in enrollment over the past two years, despite the challenges that the pandemic has placed on higher education. Even during the more restrictive lockdown months in early 2020, we were able to remain personally connected with prospective students to help them feel informed and at ease with their college decision process.
When campus visits around the country were closed or limited, the experience of Franciscan remained accessible and available to students as authentically as possible through our thorough and engaging virtual content. This allowed us to stand out in the market when other competitors essentially went dark during that crucial time period.
We were also able to put on a multi-day pre-orientation event in 2020 to help students feel ready to come to campus in the fall, and we had about 85% of the incoming students participate live, and more watched the content on demand afterwards.
Even today, when students finally get to campus, they recognize the admissions staff from the virtual events because they have been engaged with our virtual content throughout their college discernment process.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your enrollment numbers, and the increase you have seen over the past few years?
We implemented virtual programming through Conduit in April of 2020. We saw a significant increase in enrollment for Fall 2020, with a final number of deposits 108 students over our goal. This was primarily due to the fact that we offered one semester of free tuition for new freshmen, although the virtual events were a huge tool used during those challenging months to connect with students.
In Fall 2021, we continued that trend of growth without the help of that scholarship, with a final number of 49 deposits over our goal.
Currently, our applications are trending well ahead of the past few years, at 170 ahead of 2021 at this moment, despite a lower number of inquiries than past years. I believe this increase in applications is driven in large part by our consistent and persistent virtual engagement, among other factors.
“…our applications are trending well ahead of the past few years, at 170 ahead of 2021 at this moment… I believe this increase in applications is driven in large part by our consistent and persistent virtual engagement”
These numbers are amazing! What specific strategies have you deployed to increase your enrollment beyond just virtual engagement?
Along with the purchase of names of students who are likely to apply, our admissions staff travels to high schools and geographical areas where our student base is strong to foster relationships with schools and youth groups. We also receive a large number of inquiries from faith-based camps and retreats over the summer, where the students are more likely to be looking for a college like Franciscan where they can be in an environment that supports them to grow in their faith.
Once prospective students have applied, we use regular contact via text, call, email flow, and virtual meetings to foster the relationship with them and help them along the process. We use focused social media content and engagement to remain front-of-mind for admitted students to get them excited to commit to Franciscan. Finally, we host in-person visit days multiple days a week throughout the semester that are extremely well attended. This has also proved to be one of the biggest indicators in the decision process for our prospective students and their families.
Virtual engagement has been the primary new innovation we have implemented to directly increase enrollment. These regularly scheduled virtual events not only supplement and mirror our other means of recruitment, but make our marketing come alive by showing real people and experiences.
The advice and assistance of the PQE team have been very valuable to our planning and execution of our virtual content. With an ever-changing and quick-paced admissions cycle, flexibility and promptness is key to a smoothly executed virtual event schedule. The PQE team has been quick and responsive since day one in their support. We truly feel like we are equal partners and teammates.
“The advice and assistance of the PQE team has been very valuable to our planning and execution of our virtual content…We truly feel like we are equal partners and teammates.”
And we truly cherish your partnership! Clearly, you have utilized a variety of strategies that all work in harmony. Thinking back to what you have learned over the last two years, what works for your audience and what does not work?
We see higher numbers of participants in our virtual events when we have current students on the panel to share their real-life experiences here. We offer a wide variety of specific topics like top majors, Athletics, Spanish Admissions Info Night, Study Abroad Program to drive interest, rather than repeating basic info sessions.
Our audience tends to engage with presenters more when we ask questions and push them to respond in the chat or presenter question box. They like to be able to ask questions directly to the presenter and have Q&A.
We have also had success with offering small giveaways, like a t-shirt, to the first ten viewers to apply. We’ve seen a number of “stealth” registrants coming in from marketing these events on social media and our website, leading to fresh inquiries for us to follow up with.
We receive very few, minor negative comments and feedback. Our audience is always very supportive and excited. We have found that events longer than 45-60 minutes lose their attention, so we try to keep them under the hour mark.
IT support is key to preventing technical issues which may cause viewer count to go down. Long, drawn-out Powerpoints or presenters who are not excited and engaging usually have a negative effect on the event. However, we consistently see 100-250 participants every week.
“We offer a wide variety of specific topics like top majors, Athletics, Spanish Admissions Info Night, Study Abroad Program to drive interest, rather than repeating basic info sessions”
Could you expand on any specific virtual program topics that have been the most popular for both your prospective and admitted audiences?
We primarily tend to invite all prospective students to every virtual event that we present, regardless of their stage. For example, a presentation on Athletics at Franciscan is equally valuable information for an admitted student.
Some examples of events we offer directed at prospects and inquiries are: Admissions Info Night with Q&A, Virtual Campus Tour, How to Write the Application Essay, Dual Enrollment, and Life At Franciscan (more in-depth about student life/extracurriculars).
Some examples of events we direct at inquiries, applicants and admits are: Study Abroad, Athletics, Financial Aid Process, Current Student Panel, Parent Panel, Nursing, and major-specific presentations.
As orientation draws near, we will offer some more admitted student-specific events like Residence Life or Next Steps for Franciscan, which goes into more detail about class scheduling, housing, forms to complete, etc.
It has truly been a pleasure learning what has helped your team find so much enrollment success during a time when many institutions have not been as lucky. In closing, what advice would you give others who are looking to utilize virtual offerings to increase their enrollment goals?
I advise any school considering using virtual engagement to consider their audience and offer events that respond to the particular needs of the prospective students at any given point in the admissions cycle. Virtual event content should mirror the commonly asked questions and topics that the admissions staff is communicating with the students at that time. For example, have a financial aid presentation in early October right when the FAFSA opens to give students and parents step-by-step help with the financial aid process.
They should also consider the competition of other universities who have moved towards the virtual/in-person recruitment model, as prospective students have come to expect this kind of engagement from the schools they are considering.
I also recommend consistent and regularly scheduled programming, so that the audience can plan for and expect your virtual events.
Also, add the registration link and market the virtual platform everywhere possible; in email flow, social media, admissions page on the website, to drive students towards that content as early as possible in the recruitment process. When they take time to explore the past recorded presentations, and the information on the virtual platform, they are already experiencing your school and learning more about it without you having to lift a finger yet.
“add the registration link and market the virtual platform everywhere possible…When they take time to explore the past recorded presentations, and the information on the virtual platform, they are already experiencing your school and learning more about it without you having to lift a finger yet.”
Interested in learning more about how virtual engagement can enhance your institution’s reach? See for yourself how the PlatformQ Education team’s wealth of virtual programming knowledge can help you surpass your enrollment goals, and contact our team today!