It’s an understatement to say that Debbie Stieffel has seen a lot in her enrollment management career so far.
She was Dean of Admissions at Loyola University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, and now as Vice President for Enrollment and Student Affairs at University of Detroit Mercy, she’s been navigating the ongoing crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thankfully, after a tumultuous 2020, Detroit Mercy is coming out of the pandemic stronger than ever—deposits are up 45% year over year.
Debbie’s perspective on steering large organizations through difficult times is both hard-won and illuminating. We spoke with her recently about these turning points in her career, about her enrollment success at Detroit Mercy, and about their partnership with Waybetter.
The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
WB: First off, congrats on your success so far this year! Can you give us a sense of how things are going?
DS: Thanks very much. And sure. Our deposits are up 45% over last year. Which, to be fair, was an especially bad year for lots of reasons. But we’re also up 14% over 2019, which was a very good year for us. And we’re up 13% over 2018, which was our best year ever.
WB: Wow, that’s terrific. And really impressive—especially for a year in which so many schools are still struggling to recover from the effects of the pandemic. We of course want to talk about this success, but first let’s talk about your own history a little. Where has your career taken you so far?
DS: I spent the bulk of my career so far at Loyola University in New Orleans, then I was Vice President at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, and I’ve been at Detroit Mercy since 2013.
WB: You were at Loyola when Katrina hit, right?
DS: Yes, I was. And that was my most difficult professional experience ever—until Covid.
WB: Experiencing Katrina must have been so hard. Can you share what it was like?
DS: It was really hard, and it’s still hard to describe, honestly. Because you really only understood it completely if you were there in the city that was underwater. There were just a few of us in the private higher ed landscape who had to go through it: Tulane, Dillard, Xavier, and us at Loyola. Of course, there were public universities as well who had difficult times.
WB: That had to be a formative life and professional experience. How do you think it changed you?
DS: I think my big takeaway—what I learned about myself during all of that—is that I have the ability to quickly size up a situation and figure out how to fix it. So, I’m a “fixer,” maybe.
That was a huge takeaway, and it gave me confidence. After surviving Katrina and helping lead Loyola through that, some of those self-confidence questions that you always have in your mind about your career— “Is this something that I’m good at? Is this something I can do? Can I bring these skills to another institution?”—I suddenly knew the answer to those questions. I knew I could do this work.
WB: Can you elaborate on how you learned that you had this ability to quickly assess a situation?
DS: Well, when you’re in a large organization, you assume that everybody who’s above you in the organization knows what to do, that they have a plan. That is not always the case. Sometimes situations are so dire there is no playbook. Sometimes people freeze.
So, when Katrina hit, I aligned myself with the people who knew something had to be done—regardless of our fears, we were just going to move things forward.
WB: How did your experience in New Orleans inform your response to Covid?
DS: Well, with Covid, it was another massive shock to the system. Except this time, everybody was affected—every college and university in the country. And nobody knew what was going to happen. But what I learned from Katrina was that—despite our fear and not knowing what the future would hold—we had to start doing things. That’s the best way to remove the fear.
For example, we needed a platform to deliver an accepted students’ day. So we bought a huge platform and brought the university together and coached everyone on how to reach out to students and parents with videos, live sessions, and presentations…but from home. And then we had to get a virtual platform for orientation—and these are massive things to have to bring in and design.
But just the act of moving forward was part of coping with the unknown. And I think when you’re moving forward, you’re not showing fear. I wanted to show my staff, and I wanted my staff to show the rest of the university, “We’re going to get there, we’re going to get there. Here are some things that we think we should do.” So, it was technology like how to use Zoom, how to use Microsoft Teams, how to do virtual visits to high schools, how to do virtual visits with high school counselors, etc.
We just started doing things in a different way and tried to be fearless about it. “It may not always work, it may not be the best thing, but let’s do this together and let’s see what we can do.” So, we made it happen.
And I’m so lucky that it was a team effort. For example, we have a relatively new CFO who’s a visionary and strategic. Our success this year really is due to a very strong senior administrative team that I work with. They’re fantastic. And, the staff in Admissions, Financial Aid and Student Affairs were real troupers! They jumped in headfirst.
WB: That’s a great lesson—just do something and be fearless.
DS: It’s true! You’ve got to be fearless. Especially with this pandemic. You couldn’t be worried and hide out at home and think, “Oh my God, I can’t work,”—none of that. You just had to keep showing up, and every day was a 12- or 15-hour day because what else are you going to do? You weren’t going anywhere. You weren’t going out; you weren’t going anywhere except home. So all you could do is think and try, and think and try, and think and try, and think and try.
I’m not going to say it was a fun year, but in a way, I did enjoy the challenge. I don’t know. I love my job. I can tell you that.
WB: And based on the numbers, it’s also clear you’re really good at it. Maybe this is a good place to transition to talking about Detroit Mercy’s recent success. You mentioned earlier that deposits are up 45% over last year—how do you explain that very large increase?
DS: Well, to be honest, I really do attribute so much of it to Waybetter. But there are a couple reasons for that. Maybe the best place to start is with the big picture. So, for example, I mentioned we had to buy and quickly launch these big new platforms during the pandemic. And before that we’d purchased Slate.
And we could see how valuable these tools were—for visits, for financial aid, for marketing. And we were doing okay with them, but before our partnership with Waybetter, we didn’t have the right pre-strategies that we needed to truly make everything work together in an intentional way to drive enrollment.
WB: It can be really hard with so many systems and people involved to step back and see the big picture, especially when the day-to-day is so hectic. It’s been a lot of fun for us to help you and your team think about how we can get everything firing at the same time toward the same goal.
DS: A good example was the audit Waybetter did of our Slate instance. That was huge for us because while I have good and talented people on my staff, it seems like they never have time to really step back, think, and say, “Are we using all the tools that we can use to the best of our ability?” They just don’t have a lot of free time to do research about, “How do we do this better?” They were mainly managing the day-to-day practical things that they had to. And so having Waybetter come in and do that audit of our Slate instance really opened up their eyes to what we’d been missing out on.
WB: Well, you’re not alone. Lots of enrollment and marketing teams struggle with this. And it’s very understandable—it’s easy to get swamped in managing the workload and checking off the next task on the list.
DS: In addition to the big-picture strategy, the other thing you’ve helped with so much is just building our prospective student pool with your search campaigns.
Before we hired Waybetter we’d been working with a different marketing company for the last few years—a very large enrollment marketing agency. In addition, because of price concerns and our limited budget, we were leaving so many students on the table because we couldn’t afford to market to them. Students in our prime recruiting territory even. Every time we thought we might want to buy 10,000 more names, it would cost us more than we could afford, so we just couldn’t do it.
So the thing that I liked about Waybetter is that, because you’re more affordable, we’re going to buy all the names we can that make sense for us. Everything we do is going to be under this umbrella cost. So that made a lot of sense to me.
WB: Can you talk a little more about how you’ve been able to have more success in your own backyard?
DS: We’ve made some very strategic efforts to try to go into out-of-state markets, but our success this past year was really due to our increases in Michigan. With Waybetter’s help, we just made a concerted effort here.
For example, sometimes people who don’t live here don’t know all that Detroit has to offer—so Waybetter helped us with positioning the city and our location. In fact, when we first started, the Waybetter team came in and said, “Okay, tell us about Detroit. What do we need to know?”
I feel like that’s one thing that we have in common with Waybetter—they listen and then they translate our institutional knowledge into workable strategies that will help increase enrollment. They don’t come in and say, “We know everything, just listen to us. Here’s the cookie-cutter approach that many other marketing companies use.”
The other thing that Waybetter really helped with was marketing our scholarships and financial aid. The campaign you launched telling students about their scholarships was huge for us. Perception of cost is still a barrier, even after the tuition reset we did a few years ago. So your campaigns getting out to students, getting them to our microsites, and telling them what they could save if they come here really helped us with applications.
I think that’s what really drove the beginnings of our massive—massive for us, anyway—increase in applications. We’re close to 7,000 applications this year, and that never happened before.
WB: It’s great to hear all this, and we appreciate you saying it. Detroit Mercy really does have a great story to tell, and we’re grateful to be part of getting the word out. Any last thoughts you’d like to share?
DS: You know, I’ll just add, for any institutions out there that are looking to switch their marketing partner like we did: I was really impressed by Waybetter’s response to the RFP we put out. I could tell Waybetter really wanted our business. Whereas the other agencies, it felt like they came in and said, “Look what I can do for you.” And I thought, “Okay.” But with Waybetter, it was more like, “Let me show you what we can do together.” And I got excited about the people that were presenting this to me. And I felt that they were passionate about their work and that they were very hungry and really wanted us to succeed and be a true partner.
WB: Well, thanks for choosing us. We’ve loved the partnership too, and we can’t wait to see where it goes next.