by Rebecca Kern

From gingko trees to success coaches, schools are going all out to lure students and boost yield

As the national decision deadline for many colleges inches closer, schools are scrambling to persuade admitted students that their school is the best choice. For years, college admissions officials have been hosting dozens of "yield receptions" across the country, mailing slews of letters and making hundreds of phone calls to increase their school's "yield," or the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll in a college. But lately, as these methods have become commonplace, schools are pursuing creative alternatives to capture students' (or more accurately, their parents') admissions deposits. U.S. News discovered six colleges that went above and beyond their competitors to sway the remaining undecided students.

Two small Catholic, liberal arts schools in Minnesota-- Saint John's University and the College of Saint Benedict --are drawing students from across the country through their "fly-in" program. These coordinate colleges, which share academic programs and campus facilities, offer to pay half of the airfare for admitted students to come visit the university campuses, which have an overall student body of around 4,000. They also offer to pay the entire airfare for students with financial difficulties, says Matthew Beirne, director of admission for the schools. "When you look at investment on the front end, if we spend $100 for a student to visit from Colorado, if that student enrolls, the tuition revenue dwarfs that $100 investment for a flight," Beirne says. "The four-year tuition that we would get in return pays for itself many, many times over."

Beirne, who made the long-distance commitment to attend Saint John's in 1990 from his home in Richmond, Va., knows the difficulties of visiting schools that are far from home. He says the fly-in program enables students who otherwise may not have traveled to visit the schools to come see the campus. Over the past decade, Saint John's and Saint Ben's, as they are commonly referred to on campus, have helped fly in nearly 1,200 students, about 47 percent of whom have enrolled in one of the two schools, he says. The yield of students from the fly-in program exceeds the school's overall yield of 39 percent.

While Saint John's and Saint Ben's are bringing in students to their campuses, Birmingham-Southern College is mailing out a piece of its campus to students. The small liberal arts school in Alabama mailed approximately 1,500 gingko tree saplings, each measuring 4 feet tall, along with a letter from the school's president, to admitted students and their parents in mid-April. Two gingko trees, known for their golden blossoms, are prominent features on the campus. An excerpt from the letter reads, "Said to be the oldest living seed-bearing plant on Earth, the gingko thrives in challenging conditions, much like our students. To us, the gingko is a symbol of longevity and hope, two traits we have nurtured since our founding more than 150 years ago." Director of Recruitment Tyler Peterson says the gingko sapling is symbolic of the how the university takes care of its students and watches them grow up on campus. "The gingko is a way to show the student that they are wanted at Birmingham-Southern, but also to let the parents know that this is a special place."

Instead of bringing prospects to the campus or sending them a piece of it, Wilkes University , in northeastern Pennsylvania, sends its current students out to welcome incoming freshmen. This spring, for the first time, the school formed a "Colonel Coalition" that included the school's mascot, 25 students, and several admissions officials. The Colonel Coalition drove on a bus to the hometowns of five admitted students who had made their admissions deposits to the school, says Jack Chielli, executive director of marketing communications and government relations at Wilkes. They informed the students' families and friends beforehand, and then surprised the students during their daily activities, such as at work at a hair salon or while eating at a Dairy Queen. The Colonel, students, and cheerleaders greeted the student with loud cheers and colorful welcome signs, postcards, and a T-shirt. "I was happy that I was picked," says Lauren Para, a high school senior from Pittston, Pa., who was celebrating her grandmother's birthday at a restaurant. "They made such an effort to welcome me. My grandmother was so happy she started crying." Wilkes students made a video of their surprise visits.

Along with its acceptance letters, the University of Dayton sent greetings from their "personal success coaches" to the admitted students. The coaches call and E-mail prospects throughout the spring, says Sundar Kumarasamy, the school's vice president for enrollment management. Last year, the first for the success coaches, about half of the 8,000 admitted students connected with the success coach via phone or E-mail to discuss transitioning from high school to college, time and money management issues, and other life challenges, he says. "We don't want to manage success reactively," Kumarasamy says, "We want to manage it proactively before the students come here." About 400 enrolled students stayed connected with their coaches while they were on campus as freshmen in the fall of 2009. This spring semester, when the university stopped providing the service for free, 20 families paid to continue the coaching services.

Other schools use technology to reach out to students. Bentley University , in Waltham, Mass., created seven 30-minute webinars this year on topics such as campus life, internships, careers, and college life in Boston, says Erika Vardaro, director of undergraduate admissions. Admissions officials and at least one student or faculty member participated in each session, which incorporated a prepared video, interactive chat with the participants, and a PowerPoint slide show. All of the webinars were also posted on a website for admitted students.

This year, Lafayette College , in eastern Pennsylvania, selected 12 alumni from different majors and professions, and matched them with admitted students with related interests. These 2,000 admitted students would then receive a letter on company letterhead from the alumna or alumnus. These letters included a Lafayette E-mail address for the students to contact the letter writer. Such personalized connections seem to be working, says Robert Massa, vice president of communications for the school. Deposits are up 10 percent from this same period last year.

Ayesha Nadarajah, a high school senior from Mountain Lakes, N.J., and an admitted student to Lafayette, said the letter she received from a 2005 alumna who is an associate producer for the TODAY Show on NBC helped her decide to attend Lafayette this fall. "The fact that alumni had taken the time to write me a letter kind of shocked me. Her experience at Lafayette helped her figure out what she wanted to do. Now I have a possible contact who I could shadow and see what I want to do as a career someday."

Education: As College Decision Day Looms, Schools Say: Pick Me

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