Last year at this time, Isaac Seiler was collecting college acceptance letters. The Rockford, Michigan, student applied to 11 colleges, all across the country, and the acceptance packets kept rolling in. “It was kind of overwhelming,” he said. His mailbox overflowed. Colleges sent him handwritten notes, glossy posters, and trinkets emblazoned with logos. He scrutinized virtual tours and had long conversations with friends and family.
Ultimately, Seiler chose Calvin. When he reflects on his decision, he can’t pinpoint one reason for his choice. He recalled a memorable Fridays visit, getting accepted into the Honors Scholars program, and an aid package that was competitive and made Calvin financially feasible.
Seiler’s story is a common one. “The competition in undergraduate recruitment is increasing, and there are many factors students and families consider,” said Lauren Jensen, vice president of enrollment strategy. “People often think that if we just did this one thing, we could tip a student to decide, but the recruitment landscape and decision-making process is very complex.”
Moving from management to strategy
Every morning, Jensen inspects that complicated landscape. Her phone flashes the latest dashboard of data that Calvin is tracking—applications, visits, “pings” on the website, and more. She’s looking for insight and opportunities.
“We can’t set an enrollment management plan and assume that the students will come,” said Jensen, who had been in the vice president role for only a year when the pandemic hit. “We need to be much more strategic about the use of our resources—everything from where we spend our financial aid dollars to what schools we send our admissions counselors to, to how we invest in digital advertising.”
Jensen points out that Calvin has taken this “data-driven strategy” approach in student retention in recent years—and it’s been working. After a few years of declining retention rates, Calvin assessed, evaluated, and made important changes that improved the retention rate from 84.6% to 86.8%.
A hard look at the hard numbers
When students were counted on census day this fall, the total Calvin University enrollment was at 3,307. There were 805 new incoming students, many moving into the residence halls, meeting new friends, and navigating the crisscross paths of campus for the first time.
If those numbers seem low to you, you’re not alone. In 2013, Calvin’s incoming class was 1,107, and the number of incoming students has been steadily shrinking since then.
This year has been especially difficult for colleges and universities as a whole, with many students deferring a college education. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the United States saw a decline in freshman enrollment this year of 16.1%. Michigan higher ed institutions saw a drop of 9.5% in undergrad enrollment in 2020.
Students also tended to stick closer to home this fall, opting to go to college in their home states. Calvin has large populations of out-of-state and international students, said Jensen, so it might have been more adversely affected by that trend than other institutions. Calvin’s percentage of in-state students is up this year (54% in 2020 compared to 52% last year).
Jensen is quick to point out that demographic factors aren’t the only reason Calvin’s enrollment numbers are going down. “We can—and do—spend a lot of time looking back and analyzing what happened the prior year. We survey students about why they enrolled or didn’t enroll at Calvin, we analyze trends, and we listen to anecdotes,” Jensen said. “And taking all that into consideration, we make a strategy that will hopefully enable Calvin to grow and expand in new networks and places.”
A changing playbook
High schoolers this year are facing travel restrictions, cancelled college fairs, and uncertainty about the economy. “In the COVID reality, the admissions playbook gets to be rewritten,” Jensen said. “This is a time for those of us who can think creatively about new approaches.”
One of the first things the admissions team reconsidered was the college visit. Instead of offering large one-size-fits-all visit days like Fridays at Calvin, Calvin changed course. Now, students can choose from “bite-sized” sessions with lots of virtual options.
“We have an entirely new perspective on events,” said Melissa Rousseau, director of admissions. “We’re giving students the opportunity to engage with us multiple times throughout the year. We want to deliver the information that they want exactly when they want it.”
In the fall, prospective students could visit campus in person. Plus, they can join virtual events like Open House Live and Career Pathways. “We’re taking advantage of the online platform to deliver some unique and unexpected experiences,” said Stephanie Brink, associate director of admissions.
Another part of the strategy is to grow awareness of Calvin through digital campaigns. “We’ve revamped our approach this year to be more focused and targeted in our efforts with email and digital marketing,” said Rousseau.
Data also informs which schools the admissions counselors target. “We have data on schools across the country, and we can see where we might gain some traction,” said Robin Wait, associate director of admissions.
In the last six years, one segment of Calvin’s population has grown: international students. “We made a real commitment to grow,” said Tara Braun, director of international admissions. An additional international recruiter was hired, and Braun’s team built global connections.
Alumni in places like Ghana and South Korea build Calvin’s reputation through their networks. In recent years, Calvin’s international student body has been about 13%.
In the spring, consulates were closing, and it seemed impossible for some international students to study at Calvin in the fall. “We knew we needed to do something,” said Braun, who worked with a cross-divisional team on a plan. “I’m proud of how we came together to make it all happen,” she said.
In the end, they were able to pivot to an online cohort and retain 101 incoming international students this fall, with more coming in the spring. “A lot of other institutions just lost their international students,” Braun said. “We couldn’t let that happen.”
5 Practical Ways Alumni Can Help Calvin Grow
Remember your Calvin story
“There’s power in your story as an alum,” President Michael Le Roy told alumni on a Facebook Live video this fall. When the topic of your college experience comes up in conversation, be ready to tell how your Calvin education shaped your life.
Be bold about sharing
Follow Calvin on social media, and hit the share button when you see good news. There are great things happening at Calvin, and you never know what might connect to a prospective family.
Use your networks
It might feel more natural to talk about Calvin with others who are already familiar. But think about ways you can introduce Calvin into other circles of your life, like including Calvin in your professional bio or wearing Calvin gear to a neighborhood gathering.
Get a bumper sticker
Show your Calvin pride with a new Calvin University Alumni sticker for your car. Email email@example.com with your address, and we’ll drop one in the mail.
If you talk to a high school student about Calvin, tell us about it at calvin.edu/recommend.
If you’d like to help admissions efforts in your area, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The admissions team will let you know when there is an event or initiative in your area.