“Ask the Pros” Series: Top-of-the-Funnel Recruitment: An Interview with John Buckley of Fordham University

November 20, 2019

elcome to our three-part series devoted to helping readers successfully navigate today’s higher ed recruitment funnel.

In follow up to our post on The Biggest Challenges Facing Higher Education Institutions, we’ve tapped three respected enrollment experts to share how they’ve adapted at each stage in order to enroll strong and inclusive classes. In this inaugural post, veteran enrollment pro from Fordham University, John Buckley, talks with HAI CEO Emily Coleman about how finding and interacting with college prospects has changed over the past 10 years.

HAI: Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed, John. Would you mind introducing yourself and telling our readers a bit about your work in the enrollment management field?

JB: My pleasure. I’ve spent my entire career in enrollment management…about 35 years. I’m currently vice president for admission and student financial services at Fordham University and, before that, I served as the associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment and dean of admission. I’ve been with Fordham since the mid-1980s, with myriad responsibilities over the years...managing the undergraduate selection process, making hundreds of domestic and international school visits, overseeing direct marketing campaigns, reviewing thousands of applications, and working closely with many University departments

HAI: In terms of recruiting undergraduates, what would you say has changed the most in the past 10 years?

JB: Without a doubt, that would be the use of technology. I’ve watched our field transition from using a very high-touch approach where we were interviewing individual students every day, to dealing with thousands of prospects in applying a different type of personalized experience.

HAI: What has gotten easier?

JB: Reaching students from greater distances has gotten much easier in this digital world. Plus, moving from paper to online has completely transformed the way our team does their work – it’s so much easier to accomplish things. Gone are the days that we had to lug around huge bags of paper applications. That alone was a big boost to staff morale!

HAI: O.K., so what has gotten harder?

JB: Relationship building and management. It remains a big part of what admissions professionals do. Our Admissions office is a high-volume operation and, as a result, it has become much more challenging to foster relationships with high school counselors, students, and parents. And the nature of our work is more analytical and multi-dimensional: for example, we spend a lot more time with data these days.

HAI: How have the size and composition of prospect and inquiry pools changed? Same question about the applicant pool?

JB: Well, for starters there is much more geographic diversity. Our prospect pools are also much larger, and with higher academic credentials too.

Our applicant pool in the late 80s was less than 4,000 for the entire undergraduate population – last year it was 48,000. Fewer applicants in the entire pool back then than there are from the state of California now.

HAI: Growing the prospect/inquiry pool might seem like a good thing, but what challenges have come with it?

JB: Creating appropriate micro-funnels so messages are tailored and distinctive. Staff is stretched with greater volume at all levels of the funnel (programming, reading, multitasking).

HAI: Is it possible for prospective students to feel like they are getting personalized attention nowadays?

JB: Marketing initiatives can be so much more targeted now using the available data. We often know more about prospects now, and can use that to be responsive to a student’s individual needs and interests.

HAI: Has your admissions staff grown at the same pace as the prospect pool?

JB: Not even close. We have added a few positions, but nothing in line with applicant pool growth. We do employ seasonal readers – typically a mix of former staff and grad students in Education or a related field.

HAI: How does your staff prioritize their time, given the size of the pool?

JB: Most importantly, every application is read. It has been suggested to us that we could greatly simplify this process by sorting apps on certain criteria. We certainly engage in some of this, but we also feel very strongly that every student deserves a thorough read – the student has applied and we want to respect and honor that degree of interest by providing a holistic review.

HAI: What do you and your team do to gauge the interest of the pool (and individuals)—

and do you do anything differently as a result?

JB: We employ analytics to gauge interest levels and compare where we stand relative to prior years… It certainly helps to inform whether we will realistically be able to hit the class targets, and whether we need to admit more or fewer students. Essentially, you want to get a read on the health of your prospect and applicant pools so you can more effectively and strategically plan.

To aid in making these decisions, we employ an internal enrollment research person who assists us in both marketing and FA modeling among other tasks. His efforts allow us to do some differentiated marketing based on both the level of engagement the prospect demonstrates as well as other characteristics. For example, we do not send print materials to everyone – it just doesn’t make sense to do so practically or financially. We have target populations for certain outreach efforts.

HAI: What are the strong signals or markers that indicate that a student will be interested and apply (and perhaps later enroll)?

JB: Campus visits are a huge indicator. For people to take time out of their busy lives to spend time with us, it is a strong signal that there is more than just a passing interest. Of course, there are also plenty of people who don’t have the time or resources to visit. For those students we deploy staff to host events in different regions. And we still do a representative number of high school visits to talk to students where they are, in their environment. This particular personal touch enables prospects to experience Fordham in a different way.

The website is of paramount importance. Navigation has to be easy, and videos of current students need to be there. It’s a first impression–if a student goes to our site and can’t easily find what they are looking for, they may not pursue Fordham. We also offer a solid online tour. And we’ve done webinars as well, featuring current students talking about Fordham. This is particularly helpful with our international students.

But make no mistake; the Web creates challenges, too. Prospects don’t need to come directly to our site to find out what we offer or how we stack up in terms of various metrics. There are plenty of third-party sites that provide information, not all of it reliable. And social media is without question another window on your institution. Again, the content is not always on the mark. We receive a fair number of “stealth applications” from students who have never formally interacted with us, but who complete an application regardless. They have often engaged with our school only through online channels.

HAI: Are there any analytical tools that you use to make your job more manageable?

JB: There are several. We have a state-of-the-art CRM. Predictive modeling is employed to assess yield likelihood and shape the class. It is an industry that involves both art and science. We have a very experienced staff and they don’t just take analysis and predictive modeling at face value. They also rely on gut feelings, instincts and the buzz in the marketplace.

For example, NACAC ethics code shifts will make this year especially challenging – we might be defining a new baseline in this cycle. The changes are making many people very nervous.

HAI: How have the ways in which prospective students research colleges changed and how have you responded to these changes?

JB: The online aspect of research that I referenced earlier requires us to be responsive and thoughtful in our presentation of content and the channels that we employ to reach students. Linking new modes of communication with proven, successful more traditional methods of recruitment is ideal. We have always encouraged students to spend time on campus… I believe that this is the most important step in the college search process. Nothing replaces the campus visit, the first hand impression. Especially as a university in NYC. Students and their families may envision a big, overwhelming, impersonal environment. The visit immediately dispels and informs this perception.

We have 2 magnificent locations in New York. The beautiful Rose Hill campus in the Bronx is more familiar to many because it has a history that dates to the 1840s. However, we also offer a campus adjacent to Lincoln Center in Manhattan with a substantial, thriving undergraduate population. Fordham has invested more than $400M in that campus over the past 5 years. Students can take advantage of both campuses while enrolled, with the Ram Van serving as a key transportation resource. A visit to both makes sense for any prospect.

HAI: John, thanks so much for taking the time to sit down and talk with me.

JB: Any time!

Editor’s note: Our thanks to John for his willingness to help others navigate the changing world of enrollment management. In addition to his work at Fordham, John has served on the executive board of the National Catholic College Admission Association, including as president for a year. He has also been active in the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling, which recognized him as College Counselor of the Year in 2002 for exceptional service to the profession. He was selected for the faculty of the Summer Institute, which trains junior members of the profession.

Want to learn more about our work? Visit our higher ed solutions page for an overview of our decades-long experience in the industry, including building predictive models, creating enrollment and financial aid strategies, and more.