“I Got Accepted and I Have A LOT of Questions”: USD Overcomes Yield Concerns By Leveraging the Authenticity of Student Voices

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Many of us remember when we received our admissions letters from our choice colleges. We marked the day when decision letters went out and anxiously awaited our result. When it did arrive, we celebrated or bemoaned that result without even opening it — it was a big envelope or it wasn’t big enough. 

Of course, those of us who remember this process are dating ourselves a bit as that whole process has been moved online, but regardless it’s that time of the year. Acceptances have gone out and the excitement is reaching its peak. Now it’s time for the schools to feel anxious. Will your admitted students say “yes” to you?!

Amidst all this, no one anticipated the swell of changes that COVID-19 would bring: institutions scrambling to move toward virtual instruction, students being asked to vacate their campus residences, and graduations being postponed or even cancelled. Thousands of college campuses have been forced to shut their doors and cut down on student services.

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Losing Visit Days

For prospective students, this means not having the ability to experience a campus visit, one of the main influential factors for making the decision on which college to attend. It may even mean not being able to contact the admissions staff with questions or concerns.

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For colleges and universities, they have lost a main tool in their arsenal to drive yield. In a recent study, 85.1% of schools attributed “considerable importance” to the campus visit in recruiting first-time freshmen. “There’s never a good time for a pandemic, but from an admission standpoint, there really couldn’t be a worse time,” said Jon Boeckenstedt, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Oregon State University said recently in an NPR report. Without being able to welcome students to campus, many institutions are thinking through tactics that could bring the spirit of the campus visit to their prospects. As the traditional May 1 deposit deadline approaches quickly, enrollment offices are moving fast.

But even before COVID-19 created this upheaval, our partners at the University of San Diego recognized the need to provide virtual support to their admitted class of 2024. In a matter of two weeks, USD launched the Torero Ambassador Network, powered by PeopleGrove, where over 70 student ambassadors help bring the spirit of the campus visit to 5000+ prospective students.

Working with PeopleGrove and their internal partners, USD Admissions was able to create a dynamic experience for their admitted students and continue to drive yield in the face of the unique challenges presented by COVID-19.

Two Departments, One Mission

Before the Torero Ambassador Network came to fruition, PeopleGrove was collaborating with the USD Career Development Center, powering their Torero Employers and Alumni Mentors (T.E.A.M.) network. This network gives current students the opportunity to seek life and career mentorship from alumni who’ve been in their shoes. As one of PeopleGrove’s earlier partners, the team in the “CDev” Center have been tremendous advocates for PeopleGrove, driving amazing success for their institution while being wonderful supporters of our work.

When we met Austin McKinley, USD Admissions Communication Supervisor, at the 2019 National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) annual conference, we were intrigued to learn that he was running an ambassador program with current students connecting with prospects. They focused on providing prospective students a way to engage with student ambassadors to receive authentic views of USD life.

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Based on the success of the existing T.E.A.M. network, we believed that we could help the Admissions office reach their goals by implementing a virtual engagement platform that could work in tandem with T.E.A.M. and build an even stronger cohesive community.

The Challenge

With over 40 awards and accolades — from being ranked #7 for “Best Quality of Life School,” to being the first West Coast school to be nominated as a Changemaker campus — USD is a highly recognizable institution.

However, like all institutions, USD needed to ensure they were delivering the information that prospects care about:

  • Return on their Investment: It’s no surprise that the number one “job that someone hires” college to do is to get a career outcome. 58% of respondents listed that employment goal as the main reason they pursue higher education in a Gallup study. And as tuition costs increase and student debt grows, students and their families want to know that there is ROI on their investment.

  • “Fit” on Campus: Students also want to know that they will find a place to explore things that interest and inspire them. Think about your typical campus tour from a student guide. The student talks about class size, the organizations they belong to, and even life in their residential hall. All information designed to give prospects a sense of their overall “fit.”

  • Authenticity of the Source: Admissions offices have always known that prospects respond better to someone closer to their age. It’s why they leverage students as tour guides in the first place. However, more so than other generations, Gen Z cares about the authenticity of their sources of information. This is a generation that has never known the world without the internet and have become savvy in identifying the accuracy of their sources. Being able to authentically reach these prospects is crucial to success.

Of course, USD has its own unique brand and identity that Austin and the team wanted to help prospects understand. As a smaller, private, and Catholic institution in southern California, USD is an ideal school for those looking for smaller class sizes and more individual attention. It’s also great for students interested in a faith-based education focused on the liberal arts, social innovation, and justice. It’s even great for those looking to enjoy the SoCal sun and spend their college days in San Diego. In undergoing brand enhancement efforts, USD chose to focus on these as brand pillars to get in front of prospective students.

When needing to drive home a particular message and brand, Austin understands how peer to peer interaction can build a sense of trust and rapport. “It’s all the little things that only a student could say. And even if I said them as an admissions representative, it would mean half as much because it’s not coming from the mouth of a student.” Prospects see a student or an alumni as a more authentic source of information since they have lived the USD experience.

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In recognizing this, Austin had created an informal ambassador program called Regional Connections. However, the program required several manual tasks to be completed that provided a barrier to prospects connecting with ambassadors quickly. “If a student emailed me, then I manually connected them via email to an ambassador. But if we can skip where I have to be a part of it, that’s 50 less emails in my inbox,” Austin said. Serving as a middle man was not only slowing down the process, but taking time away from Austin that he could be focusing elsewhere.

With acceptance letters on track to arrive in the mail by March 16, the Admissions office was interested in having a virtual engagement program in place prior to that deadline so that knowledge-seeking prospective students could have additional outlets to help them make an informed decision.

The Solution

An important part of implementing a solution for the ambassador program was to ensure a seamless experience for all the users involved. With the T.E.A.M. network already in place at USD, any additional solution needed to ensure that it worked in tandem with the Career Development Center and helped guide students on their journey through the community. A “one community, one platform” approach was important to all USD stakeholders as a reflection of their approach to overall student success.

To ensure this consistency, PeopleGrove designed a solution that gave the Admissions office significant ownership of the way that prospects connect with ambassadors all within the existing T.E.A.M. environment. The Virtual Visit Day tool takes what PeopleGrove does best — create meaningful 1:1 connections — and brings it to prospective students to help them get the information they need from a crucial source.

Once the solution was designed, it was time to implement. These implementations can often take time; however, PeopleGrove has a well orchestrated implementation process that allows partners to strategize and deploy the enrollment solution to ambassadors and their students in 7 days. With some quick and intentional decision making, USD and PeopleGrove had a program up and running just in time for yield season.

Meaningful Outcomes

Regional Connections soon became the Torero Ambassador Network, powered by PeopleGrove.  

As the invitation to the site went out to prospective students, the results were almost immediate. Hundreds of potential Toreros signed up to connect with 70+ ambassadors and learn more about the USD experience. Out-of-state students became the most active users, with 65% of joined prospects identifying themselves as living outside of California.

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Two weeks in and the engagement is only growing. Over 700 messages have been exchanged between prospects and ambassadors on topics ranging from internships, student government, specialized USD programs, and specific majors. Admitted students are taking full advantage of this unique opportunity to instantly connect with future classmates.

Of particular note over the last few weeks has been the engagement on the ambassador side. Anyone who has reached out to network with someone and heard crickets on the other end knows the feeling of not getting the help you need. You’re almost embarrassed that you put yourself out there like that. Fortunately for potential USD students, the ambassadors have answered the call. 88% of messages are responded to — and thoroughly responded to. These ambassadors care deeply about their community and are happy to engage in a dynamic, virtual way.

It’s still early, but Austin and the team only see possibility in the new Torero Ambassador Network. “It would have taken me months to make sure that this many admits were supported at this scale and with this level of personalization,” Austin shared. The team is now thinking about how to engage other community members to serve as ambassadors to support these admitted students.

Yield Concerns of Your Own? The Time is Now

University of San Diego’s story is a great example of how strategy and intentionality can create a successful digital space for knowledge-seekers to find able and willing knowledge-sharers. With campuses closed and offices shut down due to COVID-19, admitted USD students have a community at their back to help them make their college decision. Austin McKinley and the team feel confident that these ambassadors will support these transitioning students and that USD’s incoming class of 2024 are going to be just fine. 

While the future of COVID-19 is unknown, enrollment offices don’t have the luxury of taking the “wait-and-see” approach that other campus offices might have. With the traditional May 1 deposit deadline looming, we are in the middle of peak yield season. Without the ability to host campus visits, admissions should focus on bringing the Visit Day to prospects using the authentic voices of the community. Given what we’ve learned from our work with USD, PeopleGrove is ready to help university communities continue to drive towards their enrollment goals.

Learn more about PeopleGrove enrollment solutions, and our rapid deployment packages at: https://resources.peoplegrove.com/digital-enrollment-solutions