Times like these require unique and collaborative approaches.
Whitney Soule, Sr. Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Student Aid at Bowdoin College, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss the efficiency and effectiveness of joint admission events with like institutions, especially in a new era with fewer SAT and ACT takers.
What Is the Six Colleges Initiative?
Six small undergraduate and residential liberal arts colleges with strong financial aid programs are all working together to create collaborative admissions events.
Bowdoin has joined Amherst, Williams, Carleton, Pomona, and Swarthmore, all schools with common values but spread around the country from Maine to California. While they don’t share geographic proximity, these schools can support one another’s recruitment efforts mid-pandemic.
When Collaborative Admissions Events Make Strategic Sense
Actually, this initiative is not just a response to COVID. For years, many colleges participated in group travel in which representatives from 3-10 institutions would travel together to promote higher education in front of families.
Everyone in the group would work off each other’s prospect lists. All the schools would share the stage, taking turns to deliver key points of differentiation about their institution. Then, they’d do a broad Q&A for prospective students, parents, and counselors.
“What we ended up doing was casting that concept into this virtual world,” Whitney explained.
And not a moment too soon.
We have lost the traditional way of bringing students into our mailing list where we can communicate with them about applications, admissions, and campus life. Typically, we would have all had thousands of students coming through our campuses by now, taking tours, sitting in on information sessions, and perhaps even having interviews.
Now, we have no visitors. And with so few students sitting for standardized tests, it’s hard to get them on the mailing list that way.
“So what we thought we might do is bring the six schools together who have so much in common,” Whitney explained. “We already have overlapped prospect and applicant lists.”
Historically a lot of students looking at Bowdoin might also be looking at Amherst, Williams, Swarthmore, Pomona, or Carleton. Consequently, it would be efficient for the student to sign up for one mailing list or show up for one meeting to learn about all six schools.
It works for students who don’t want to do Zoom call after Zoom call, too, and it’s great for the schools because they can reach more people this way than in a one-off.
How to Navigate Political Concerns Around Collaboration
Collaboration breeds both risk and innovation. The risk is clear: students committed to one school show up to a collaborative event and switch their allegiance to another institution. Remember, though, that scenario works in your school’s favor, not just against you.
So yes, there’s a risk, but each school also has the responsibility to stay true to its messages, values, and institutional personalities. That’s the only way prospective students can see each institution as a different place.
“I think that inspiration of having to be very clear in your differentiation is also inspiring for us as deans,” Whitney said, “and how much we care about moving students into the pipeline for higher education.”
This year the six colleges have done 3-4 different programmings with the deans working together. Another set happened with directors of admission working together, and they did yet another set of programming with international recruiters. The schools have also done specific programming for first-generation to college, students of color, and low-income students.
Families can go to sixcolleges.org and see the recordings of the presentations. Even if they aren’t interested in any of these schools, the service still explains how some aspects of higher ed and college admission works.
Do Collaborative Admissions Events Work?
The six schools measure success in two ways:
1. How many people actually log in to the virtual events.
“This is primarily in the evening and we know people are exhausted by Zoom that they’re encountering for their work or for school,” Whitney said.
But the initiative has seen 4,500 students and parents and another 1,500 high school counselors log in since the end of August.
2. The comments students, counselors, and parents send in the chat.
The virtual event provides a way of feeling informed and reassured that this process is still working and not entirely out of control. The idea of searching for a college virtually can overwhelm students and families. high school counselors are also really trying to figure out how to encourage, direct, and guide students without the traditional measures.
“We feel really good about the engagement that we’ve had doing this,” Whitney said.
Next Steps for Institutions Considering Shared Events
First, figure out what you want to accomplish by being together.
The six schools in this case share common interests and are similarly competitive. They attract the same kinds of students. From the beginning, they knew they were building a group that would be tightly competitive but also a valuable landing space for students.
“When thinking about who you might want to collaborate with,” Whitney said, “have a shared understanding of why you think you should be together, what your messaging would be by working together.”
It takes a lot of trust and collaborative work to think about how we can share this space and still feel like we are doing the very best work for our own institutions. Deans need to meet regularly, which means prioritizing the initiative. They need to stay connected, share ideas with one another, and talk through the common experiences of leading a higher education institution during a complicated time.
“There’s been a nice benefit in a professional way as well,” Whitney said.
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