When Dr. James Birge arrived at Franklin Pierce University (FPU) in 2009, the institution was facing a set of formidable marketing and enrollment challenges. Since that time, FPU has experienced unprecedented enrollment growth, among both new students and returning students. We spoke with President Birge recently and asked him to share the steps he took to achieve such impressive success at his institution.
Q. What were the primary marketing and enrollment challenges facing the University when you arrived as President in April of 2009?
A. When I arrived at Franklin Pierce University, we were in the midst of a significant enrollment slide. Incoming class sizes were falling and multi-year retention rates were hovering around 60%. I was most concerned by the resistance to changing recruitment and retention strategies in order to abate these enrollment losses. We also did not have a marketing strategy for undergraduate enrollment. We were neither paying any attention to nor assessing our market position.
Q. What strategies did you implement to address those challenges?
A. The first strategy was to bring in SimpsonScarborough to conduct two analyses: 1) a review of our recruitment practices and recommendations for changes to our procedures, and 2) market research to discover what people in our primary recruiting markets thought of Franklin Pierce University. Both analyses generated extraordinary information that framed our recruitment, marketing, and strategic planning efforts.
Q. As of May 1, your deposits were up 64% over last year. To what do you attribute this success?
A. No one is more surprised at the success of our recruiting efforts than I am. Although I knew we would see improvements in the funnel given the recommendations we implemented, I did not anticipate such a fast acceleration in inquiries, applications, deposits, and yield.
We implemented a number of strategies to make our recruitment more robust and our university more distinct. We revised our campus visit schedule to include many more days for visits; we implemented an overnight program for prospective students to stay with current students; we invited parents to come for a stay in a local New England Inn where we provided them with a reception and dinner with faculty and staff; we added new majors in response to what we learned in the market research; and we created “pathway programs” between our undergraduate programs and our graduate programs.
Our greatest strategy however, is our staff’s approach to students and their families. I consistently hear from parents of prospective students as well as parents of graduating students that their experiences with our financial aid staff, the admissions counselors, faculty, coaches, receptionists, and facilities staff are significant factors that influence why they come to Franklin Pierce and why they stay.
Q. The percentage of freshman registering for fall classes as sophomores is 81%–the highest in your history. What let to this increase?
A. Of course, there are many, many factors that impact retention. For us, it began with creating a retention committee made up of students, faculty, and staff to tell us more about the students’ educational experiences on campus and what contributed to their decisions to stay or leave.
The changes we are making are based on the input of the Retention Committee, include changing academic policies to better accommodate students’ needs, expanding wireless access to allow for collaborative work in more places on campus, replacing laundry machines in the residence halls with smart machines that communicate with students wirelessly, and renovating the dining hall. I think the largest impact on retention, however, has been our decision to limit tuition increases. In two of the last three years we have not increased tuition.