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Gaining Admission

It’s just a small touch, really. A flat-screen TV, carefully set behind the information desk at the Ariens Family Welcome Center, lists the names of the high school students visiting campus that day. Yet this modest, welcoming gesture really strikes a chord with the prospective students, who typically ask their parent or family member to snap a picture of them next to the sign. In fact, that TV screen might be as popular a photo op for the students as the college’s signature brick-and-iron arch, says Ed Lamm, vice president for enrollment management and communications. 

It’s precisely this kind of attention to details small and large that’s behind St. Norbert’s astonishing recruitment successes in an increasingly challenging environment.

Few people outside of those in the college admission field may realize it yet, but it’s no easy task attracting students to your campus these days. That’s because the number of high school students from traditionally college-bound populations is dropping. “We’ve been seeing this for a number of years now,” says Lamm. “The number of high school graduates in Wisconsin and our primary territories ­– Illinois, Minnesota and the Upper Peninsula in Michigan – has been declining, and we’re seeing that continue through 2024.”

Knowing this is a long-term trend, the college’s admission office, along with St. Norbert’s president and board of trustees, have been working aggressively to ensure St. Norbert’s classrooms stay full of bright, vibrant students. First, they backed up the recruitment process. A decade or so ago, the typical recruitment process began 12-18 months out; potential students were contacted by St. Norbert in the middle of their junior year of high school. Today, counselors reach out to high schoolers as early as the middle of their sophomore years. “We have to get SNC into their heads earlier,” says Lamm.

Besides pushing the St. Norbert College name out to students earlier, the admission staff is also pushing its traditional physical boundaries. Yes, eastern Wisconsin residents are still heavily recruited, as are those in the Greater Chicago area, Minnesota and the U.P. But now more attention is being given to high school students outside of the Chicago area in Illinois, and those in western Wisconsin. This tweak in marketing strategy has helped, says Lamm and Mark Selin, executive director of enrollment; the increase in applications for the Class of 2019 came in at 70 percent higher than the previous year, culminating in the largest number of first-year students to date: some 600 of them.

Along with more aggressive general recruiting, SNC is stepping up its recruitment efforts for students of color. “It’s an institutional goal to continue to diversify the campus, just as we’re doing with our faculty and staff,” says Lamm. The college currently has 9.1 percent students of color; 11.1 percent in the Class of 2019. (The highest percentage in SNC history and largest number-wise, at 66.)

The process overall is complicated by several tensions at play. The quest is on for an undergraduate body balanced by gender, cultural background, academic attainment and geographic diversity. This alone would be enough to make admission decision-making a highly complex juggling act – even without the awareness of the individual human being yearning for opportunity who stands behind every application.  

The St. Norbert advantage
One thing that has certainly aided in recruitment efforts is St. Norbert’s rising profile as one of the top 10 Catholic liberal arts colleges in the United States. Add to that reputation the continuing improvements to what is already a beautiful campus setting. It’s extraordinary for any college or university to have constructed, renovated and/or acquired a dozen facilities over a six-year period – without taking out loans – as St. Norbert has done. Especially with the country battling a recession. And these new amenities were achieved through donor support rather than through corresponding hikes in tuition. That fact has impressed many potential students and their families.

The human touch
Of course, big, shiny new buildings won’t attract throngs of students in and of themselves. Lamm says, “When you increase apps by 70 percent and number of admits by 48 percent, there is something special at play; we credit our admission counselors, who are working their tails off to ensure the personal touch we’re known for, striving for a quick turnaround in answering their questions, and developing ongoing personal relationships with students and families. 

“There’s a lot to be said for being able to depend on a group of people who really believe in this place. They can see a student here, and they believe they’re doing the right thing in working to make that possible. There are also tough times, when we have to tell students that this might not be the right place for them, whether educationally, financially or whatever. In all situations, our team recruits with their hearts, and this is a place that supports their level of belief.”

St. Norbert makes sure to partner with leading enrollment management consultants to reach the students it would most like to enroll, strategically targeting qualified students. With those names in hand, it’s the job of the admission counselors on campus to encourage applicants to visit, to keep St. Norbert on their radar and, ultimately, to accept the offer and take up their place.

Deciding where to pursue your education is a very personal choice. A student’s decision is based on a college or university’s physical plant, yes. And on its program offerings and the quality of education, too. But so much of the final decision rests on where a student can picture himself living and studying. Where a student feels people care. Where a student feels at home. 

This part of the recruitment process is where St. Norbert really shines, agree Lamm and Selin. Get a potential student on campus, they say, and the chance of having them say yes to St. Norbert College dramatically increases. That’s in part because of the appeal of the riverfront campus and in part because the college’s admission counselors are “fantastic.”

“I would put our admission staff as one of the strongest around,” says Selin. “For them, it’s all about building personal relationships and trust. And they’re so passionate about getting the right students here. Because, ultimately, they’re changing someone’s life, and that’s how they view it.”

Admission counselor Katie Ourada ’05 loves St. Norbert College. First a St. Norbert student herself, then a grad, then a temporary faculty member, she now works in the admission office. She’s passionate about what the college has to offer, and it shows. She lives and breathes the college’s mission of communio, trying to make every potential student’s campus visit the best they’ve ever had: the best campus tour, the most information disseminated, understandable financial aid information dispensed: “We try to go the extra mile. We try to be memorable in that way.”

Eric Wagner ’06, another alumni admission counselor, adds that the counselors really try to get to know each visitor. “Yes, I want to know a potential student’s GPA and ACT score. But I really want to know what makes them tick. What they’re involved in. What they have right now as a student that they can use here on campus. If they can see themselves here.”

It’s not a typical practice for college admission counselors to hand out business cards with their personal cell phone numbers on them, but the counselors at SNC do just that. More than a few have taken calls on nights, weekends – even Easter Sunday. “We’re available around the clock to talk to students and parents who just need to take a deep breath,” Wagner says.

By putting themselves out there, by putting true emotion into their jobs, real bonds are created. If a student with whom an admission counselor has worked ends up on campus, the ties can last through graduation and beyond. And when a student seems perfect for St. Norbert, and St. Norbert perfect for the student, but in the end, the student elects to go elsewhere? “That just breaks your heart,” says Ourada. “Overcoming that disappointment can be hard. But you have to remember it’s not about you, it’s about them.”

Beyond a student’s experience with their admission counselor, a quality campus tour is essential. And St. Norbert’s student tour guides are also top-notch, the admission team says. “We have 25 spots a year for tour guides, and we have well over 100 applications a year,” says Selin. “I heard it was 150,” says Lamm. It’s a sought-after position – yet a difficult one to obtain, because the college only wants to put its best students out there. Applicants must have at least one year on campus under their belts, and must have a recommendation from two faculty members. They also must go through a rigorous interview process and additional screenings. “Students are put through the wringer,” says Ourada.

Those who emerge victorious are well-spoken, diplomatic individuals. Rather than spitting out endless facts and figures as they lead people around, they instead dispense helpful information about the campus that’s sprinkled with plenty of personal anecdotes about what it’s like to live, study, eat and sleep at St. Norbert College. The careful selection and training process apparently works; the college is often complimented on its exceptional tour guides. “We get that all the time ­­– that this was the best campus tour a student has ever had,” says Lamm. Even the college president receives regular notes from visiting families.

It may not sound as key as it is, but members of the admission staff say another reason their recruiting has gone so well in spite of the falling number of available students is that they all work well together. They’re all sincerely passionate about St. Norbert, and driven to bring in quality students who will feel the same way. In addition, the administration and board of trustees are also focused on creating a student-centered environment, with quality learning, housing, dining, studying and relaxation space. Perhaps most important, no one believes the job is done, or the process has been perfected. 

“We’re ahead of the game today with our physical plant, campus leadership, educational opportunities and strong student body,” says Lamm. “But the higher educational landscape will only continue to get more and more competitive.” 

Strategic Partnering and Enhanced Learning
As with any smaller college, part of St. Norbert’s appeal is its size. A smaller student body means smaller class sizes and more interaction with professors. Classes are very rarely taught by teaching assistants, and office hours mean meeting with your professor, not an aide. “A small school can give you more of a leg up because you have more of a chance to ask and answer questions,” says Eric Wagner. “You’re not just a number.”

Wagner adds that some visitors fear there are fewer opportunities at a smaller school, which is not necessarily true. For example, if you’d like a research spot at a large state university, you might be competing against 50 or 70 other students. Here at St. Norbert, most professors are conducting some kind of research, and often all a student has to do is simply ask to assist. “We’ve heard we have more research opportunities for undergrads here at St. Norbert than they do at larger state schools,” he says.

Still, the college intends to create as many opportunities for its students as it can. That’s why it created an enhanced honors program a few years back.

The bounds of campus are expanding in other ways: conceptually, dimensionally and geographically. New possibilities are emerging through:

Donald J. Schneider School of Business & Economics
Welcoming students for the first time this fall, the new school houses St. Norbert’s existing business administration and economics disciplines. But it is also home to SNC’s new MBA program, along with a new dean, faculty and staff.

Gap Experience
Targeted to those who aren’t sure what they want to major in, Gap Experience students sign on for a fall semester’s worth of leadership and service work while traveling. In addition, they must complete three credit-bearing college courses during that period. Limited to 20 students and led by college staff and faculty, students first study at an outdoor leadership site, then do service work at several U.S. locales. During the final weeks, students complete more service work, as well as taking in an international adventure, on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. 

Medical College of Wisconsin-Green Bay
In 2015, the Medical College of Wisconsin expanded into Green Bay, basing its independent operations in St. Norbert College’s new Gehl-Mulva Science Center. Future community physicians will study on the St. Norbert campus, at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and at Bellin College, as well as at area medical facilities. The Gehl-Mulva Science Center houses the medical college’s classrooms, administrative offices and learning laboratories.

Program Partnerships
Students can earn a Bachelor of Science in nursing with a liberal arts foundation. First they complete two years of liberal arts coursework on campus, then switch to Bellin College’s 15-month specialty nursing program.

What lies down the road? More partnerships with other institutions, says Mark Selin. One immediate prospect is an engineering partnership with two large Catholic universities where a student could spend his or her first three years at SNC, then the final two at either school in order to earn an engineering degree. Another is the potential for a a 3:3 pre-law partnership with another large Catholic school.

Campus Visit 101
In the past, campus visits lasted about three hours and consisted mainly of a tour and an interview with an admission counselor. Now students are demanding more.

A typical visit to SNC today lasts five or six hours and is as personalized as it can be. In addition to the requisite campus tour and meeting with an admission counselor, students often meet with coaches, faculty members in their areas of interest and members of extracurricular groups that pique their interest. 

“I think what’s so different about St. Norbert is that we can make personalized tours available,” says tour guide Carly Barry ’16. “It’s more fun when you can talk with families: converse with them rather than spouting information at them. You really do get to know what they’re looking for and see if St. Norbert really can offer what they want. I just absolutely adore walking them around and showing them St. Norbert. Barry jokes, “Kat [counselor Kathryn Hankamp] says, if we do our job right, then she won’t have to say anything more!”

Oct. 31, 2015