Whenever I visit the University of Denver, I am struck by its beauty: the mountain vista frames an artful blend of modern and classical architecture.
But even more compelling is Denver’s energy: the students and faculty all seem excited to be part of a thriving university.
I therefore find it nearly impossible to believe that this bustling, beautiful institution almost closed its doors in the 1980s. Drastic declines in enrollment had imperiled necessary revenue and equally drastic measures were needed to resuscitate this dying university.
Thankfully, Denver was able to create and implement those measures. Visionary leader, then-Chancellor Daniel Ritchie, stabilized the budget through accelerated fundraising programs, hired architects to transform the campus, invested in forward-looking academic programs, and completely reconceptualized the university’s enrollment infrastructure—the key to much-needed and dramatic revenue gains.
Denver’s up-from-the-ashes enrollment success can be credited in large part to an ideological shift from being market-centric to student-centric, to borrow the phrase from Denver’s former Vice Chancellor for Enrollment and visionary leader, himself, Tom Willoughby.
Recruit people, not places
As a relatively-small, private university, Denver historically depended on local student populations to comprise their student body. Colorado natives—and Denver residents, in particular—who “just knew about” the institution were most easily recruited. But these populations were neither large enough to fill Denver’s seats nor representative of the students that Denver most desired.
In partnership with Royall & Company (now EAB Enrollment Services), Denver revised its enrollment priorities and worked to find and recruit students with sought after attributes from all over the country. It convinced stakeholders that it was, in fact, possible to recruit from far-field; embraced evidence-based, best-practice outreach derived from rigorous testing; targeted desirable, prospective students as soon as their names were available for purchase; and painstakingly analyzed geographic markets across the nation to identify untapped student demand for an institution with Denver’s attributes.
This kind of “aspirational targeting” fueled a 68-point increase in average SAT scores, 62% increase in the number of students of color, and an 82% increase in out-of-state enrollment in just over a decade.
Respect student preferences and life experiences
Denver also revamped its outreach campaigns, writing student-centered, rather than institution-centered, copy that it optimized across all media channels in accordance with tested student communication preferences.
Of particular note, Denver not only abided students’ channel preferences (that is, which kind of information is best received in an email vs. a text message, for example), but also heeded students’ preferred timing of various messages. Together with EAB/Royall, Denver improved the efficiency and impact of its campaigns by aligning message-timing with the preferences and life experiences of prospective students.
The following analyses demonstrate Denver’s prospective students’ preferred trajectory of information. High school freshmen want only introductory, general information about Denver, whereas high school seniors expect Denver to provide the details of housing options and financial aid.
Student-centric practices like these catalyzed The University of Denver’s enrollment programs, fueling momentum it still enjoys today. But Denver also understands that long-term success depends on ongoing effort and innovation. Denver has continued to analyze, refine, and, indeed, trail-blaze the enrollment strategies that will yield the students—and revenue—it needs to sustain its bustling, beautiful campus.