Husson University in Bangor, Maine is an outlier.
In a historically difficult time to be recruiting traditional undergraduate students—and in an especially difficult region of the country to be doing so—they’ve had tremendous success. How much success? They brought in the largest freshmen class in school history each of the last two years.
We interviewed two leaders of their enrollment team to hear firsthand how Husson has managed to stay so far ahead of the curve. What they said really shouldn't surprise you: success starts with good leadership, great products, well-oiled partnerships, and true teamwork.
John Champoli (JC) is Husson's vice president of enrollment management. Adam Smith (AS) is Husson's director of undergraduate admissions. Waybetter (WB) has been working with Husson since January 2016.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity (and to make all of us sound just a little bit smarter than we are in real life).
WB: We don’t want to bury the lede too much, so let’s just start by saying that Husson has had a couple of very good years on the traditional undergraduate enrollment side—you guys have brought in record-breaking classes each of the last two years. So, first, congratulations! That’s no small feat.
And we’ll get to how you were able to do that, but before we do, let’s hear a little about you both individually and about Husson as an institution.
So… who are you guys? What are your backgrounds? How'd you get into higher ed enrollment?
JC: I am one of those typical starving artists who fell into higher ed. I actually graduated with an MFA in painting. Tried my hand at the professional painting circuit (as I call it) in New York. Then I showed at some galleries in Manhattan—around 2008 I finally made my way into some of the high-end galleries. And then the economy crashed, and half of those galleries closed.
After that, I started working construction (with an MFA!), and I did that for about a year until I got an opportunity as an admissions counselor at the State University of New York. I did that for six years and really enjoyed it. Then, I went on to be an associate director of international recruitment, where I got to travel to China and Hong Kong recruiting students. After that, I was director of admissions at Green Mountain College, then director at Husson, and now I’m the VP.
AS: I’ve always been in admissions. I started out working as an admissions counselor for Husson (my alma mater) and really liked it. And then I went to the registrar's office for about two years before coming back over into admissions. After that, I served as the assistant director of transfer admissions. Now, I've been fortunate to work my way up into my current role as the director of undergraduate admissions.
WB: Tell me about Husson. What are the relevant stats?
AS: We're a small private university in Bangor, Maine. We have about 3,600 students on our campus, and about 2,800 of those are undergraduates. Historically we've been known as a great school for business—we have the largest business school in Maine—but we've also had great success with our health sciences programs, and we've recently added a couple doctoral programs, one in pharmacy and one in physical therapy.
WB: Oh wow. I didn't know you guys had the biggest business program in the state. Even bigger than U Maine?
AS: Yes. We have several programs housed under the College of Business—including our School of Legal Studies and the School of Hospitality, Sport, and Integrated Technology.
JC: And what's great about a lot of these business programs is that they are attached to a five-year MBA, so that's a big thing for our students—to be able to wrap up their undergraduate degree and an MBA in five years. Some even do it in four years.
WB: Tell me a little about Husson students. Who are they? What are they looking for? Why do they choose you?
JC: I think the typical Husson student is looking for the biggest value for the investment they’re making. And that’s true whether they’re from the middle class or upper middle class, and it’s certainly true for students from lower income families and first-generation college students. We’re 37% first generation, in fact.
The reality is that higher ed in general—and private liberal arts institutions in particular—have taken a beating in the press for various reasons. And families now have much more awareness in terms of, “Well, if my son or daughter goes here, what is the outcome going to be? And how much do they have to take out in loans? And will they have a job when they’re done?” And these are all very fair questions.
WB: How does Husson answer those questions?
JC: Well, I think our price point being $17,000 a year is very reasonable, and when you're comparing it to other privates it's fantastic. So, I think that price point, that value-driven and outcome-driven family and student—this price appeals to them. And that’s the actual sticker price, by the way, before any aid. Ninety percent of our students receive institutional aid.
AS: On top of that, when we started adding new programs about ten years ago—we were really looking at the reality of the job market, and what students wanted, and what outcomes we could help them achieve.
And what’s great is, that's really driven by our board of trustees. Many of them were first-generation students who have now become very successful. So they're very conscious of the need for relevant offerings. We do not add programs that do not have a direct correlation to an occupation.
JC: We also do a good job getting students real-world experience while they’re here. The U.S. News and World Report ranked us in the Top 10 in the country for internships. So that, again, just builds into our curriculum. We want students to have real-world experience. The whole slogan of "More than just theory. Real World Experience." That's what they get here at Husson.
WB: So, a focus on outcomes. A fair price. Programs that students want. This is all starting to make sense! Could you talk a little bit about how Husson has fared historically in terms of meeting enrollment goals? Where have you faced challenges? Paint that picture for me.
AS: Well, one of our biggest challenges has always been our location. The reality is that anywhere north of Portland, Maine a lot of times can seem like Canada for students who aren't familiar with our region.
WB: Even aside from a tough geographic location, you folks in Maine—really everywhere in the northeast actually—have taken a big hit demographically.
JC: That’s right. If you look at Maine, we're in the middle of a 16% decline over ten years in terms of the number of high school graduates. And if you look at our neighbors, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, they're all in their own decline.
You have to go outside New England all the way down to the Carolinas and Tennessee to reach states that are actually increasing in numbers of high school grads. So, for us to be doing this well in this type of decline, I think that says something about the value and the education that students find at Husson.
WB: Ok, so that’s a bleak picture, but let’s talk about how well you’ve been doing. You’ve brought in two classes, Fall 16 and Fall 17, that were each record-breaking classes…
JC: That’s true. And we’ve been trending upward for a while. Just five to seven years ago, we were bringing in 350 or 400 freshmen students. Now we're bringing in almost 800 students, so we've practically doubled the size of our incoming class.
WB: You've doubled the size of your incoming freshmen class in the last five to seven years?
JC: Which is crazy.
WB: That is crazy. And it’s also exactly the opposite of what most schools, most private schools, especially in the Northeast have seen. So… what’s the secret?
JC: Well, I think a lot of it goes back to what we were saying about the value we offer and our focus on providing programs that lead to outcomes for our students.
But the other piece—and I’m not just saying this because we’re doing this interview with you!—but honestly the work we’ve done with Waybetter has been a huge help the last couple years. You guys have really helped us expand our umbrella. I think our inquiry pool has tripled just over last year for Fall '18. And a big part of that is strategy— it's looking at things differently.
WB: Could you elaborate on that a little?
JC: Sure. Take search for example. There’s search in general, the way that everybody else does it: They buy these names from the College Board, and they blast a ton of generic mail and email out there. But what do students really care about? Why can’t we talk to them as individuals about what they care about? I think Rich [Whipkey, Waybetter’s co-founder] put it best, he said, "Students, especially at this very early stage, only want the 5% of the pie that they are most concerned about. Their major, their athletic sport, their club, their interest."
So I think that's part of how Waybetter gives us the edge—when the very first thing a student hears from Husson is relevant to them and what they want and how Husson might fit into that, that’s a very effective approach. And Waybetter does this in a way that actually reaches students in their world, on their mobile devices, and on their laptops or their iPads, so I think that's the key to all of it. And it’s been a big help to us.
AS: Yeah, and I would add to that, that it's adaptability. I think Waybetter is able to adapt to any school and their need. You have certainly done that for us here at Husson. But, also, the ability to think outside of the box. Myself and John, we like to think of ourselves as big picture kind of guys, and I think Waybetter fits that mold as well.
In enrollment you always have to have the big picture in mind, especially here in the state of Maine when we're so hard pressed in terms of our declining demographic. Which, of course, is also never an excuse you can take to the Board. You can’t walk into a meeting with trustees and just say, “Well our demographic’s declining so enrollment is down.”
JC: That’s true. But even in Maine you've helped us grow, which is crazy. So even though we're in the middle of a decline, it's not just about going out of state. It's actually about how do you reach out to your own back yard? We’re up 120 Maine students from Fall 2013. So even within four years there's growth within Maine, which for us, again, we're really excited about.
WB: Could you guys talk a little more about how Waybetter fits in with your efforts at Husson? Just at a logistical level I mean. Because I think for us as an outside agency, it’s always interesting to see how vastly different things are from school to school. For example, sometimes we get hired by the marketing department and sometimes we get hired by the enrollment side of the house. Sometimes our weekly check-ins are with a whole team, sometimes they’re with the VP or senior-most member of the staff, sometimes they’re with an assistant director. Some of our clients are whizzes with their CRMs. Some of our clients are really struggling with their CRMs. Some of our clients don’t have a CRM. So it’s crucial that when we begin a relationship with a new client, we figure out fit relatively early on, otherwise there can be growing pains.
JC: Great question—because I’ve worked with tons of different vendors at different institutions. And most of it, to be honest, is cookie cutter. The thing you guys do—what sets you apart and why we're still working with you—is that you're customized to Husson’s gaps. You fill our gaps.
We don't have a CRM. But you provide some of those services. When we first started doing search, we really didn't have a strategy other than buying New England names. And you helped us laser focus our strategy there based upon GPA requirements that make sense, majors that make sense.
So helping us figure out ways—and creative ways—to reach students for the programs that we have. And then filling in the gaps within our technology and our communications plan and our fulfillment plan. And then I think the ease of working with you, too, is a big plus. And not only with us, but with our other third-party vendors, for instance our mail house down in Portland. The way you guys have synced with them so that it's all singing perfectly—now when someone inquires they're getting a packet within five business days instead of us trying to do that ourselves, and us taking up to a month. So cutting down on the timeline, the response rate, all of that has been an absolute win for us.
And really, we won big the last two years and we're looking for another big year for '18.
WB: Any advice for your counterparts at other universities who are thinking about beginning a relationship with a vendor? What should they look for? What matters?
AS: I think the biggest thing is just to make sure you choose a vendor who shares your values. So, for us here at Husson, we’re really focused on being personal—creating a personalized experience—in everything we do. We want students and their families to really feel like they have a one-on-one relationship with us. And that value is completely reflected in what Waybetter does. You guys have really done a great job when it comes to personalizing what goes out to every single student in our prospect pool.
JC: Exactly. We get to know our students, and your marketing reflects that. Also, you folks at Waybetter take the time to get to know us, and vice versa, and that's where the relationship pays off. If you don't know each other, or if you have a cookie cutter plan and you go on with that—that's not going to last. It's not going to be successful.
So I think Waybetter’s ability to customize and tailor is why we're winning.
WB: What's one thing you know now, or one thing you believe now, about higher ed that you didn't necessarily know or believe a couple years ago? How has your understanding of this industry changed?
JC: Higher ed is supposed to be a thought leader for the nation, and in a lot of cases it is. But in a lot of places in higher ed, we have to do a better job at thinking forward.
Because I think some places are stuck in the past, and I think that's going to hurt them in the long run. For example, I think if you're not paying attention to what the outcomes are first and foremost for students, and how those outcomes will make students' lives better and will help them do what they love and get paid to do it—I think if schools don't pay closer attention to that, they will be in trouble in enrollment.
So I think that's one thing that I have learned: not all institutions are equal, and I think that not all outcomes are equal for all institutions. And families are paying attention to that. And if you don't pay attention to that as an institution, you're going to have real problems in the coming few years. In fact, you're probably having problems right now.