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Technology Helps New Orleans University Rebuild Enrollment

What do you do when the mainstream media's portrayal of your city is relentlessly negative? When news services persist in showing flooded streets and stranded people and cars? When enrollments drop drastically and your technology staff is slashed because students and staff have left the city?

For several New Orleans colleges and universities, the answer has been technology.

Through carefully designed, targeted Web sites, e-mail, and social networking tools, the University of New Orleans (UNO), for example, has managed to pull enrollment back up from lows after Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.

Ron Maggiore, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management and dean of admissions, said that freshman applications for this coming fall are up by 65 percent over last year, and transfer numbers are up 76 percent. "It's been pretty dramatic.... We've been through two years with a lot of recovery going on in the city, and I think confidence is up among students and parents. New Orleans is ready for prime time again." More than two and a half years after the storm, those numbers are evidence that confidence in the city and its schools is up, he said.

It's also evidence that technology can be used effectively to deal with declining enrollments and reduced staff and to project a positive message to prospective and returning students, even in the face of unrelenting bad news.

New Orleans has traditionally been an easy place to entice students to, Maggiore said, but after the hurricane, the city faced "a relentless negative media stream from the national media." The situation in New Orleans wasn't nearly as negative as it was often portrayed, he said, but that was difficult to convey when images on the evening news continued to show a city underwater and struggling. "Our biggest challenge was to get to our populations with the right message--the accurate message," Miggiore said.

The Drastic Decline in Enrollment
Enrollment took a hard hit initially. In August 2005, prior to Katrina, UNO had more than 17,000 students. Six weeks later, the school re-enrolled just 7,000 students for its fall semester. The main campus, located on a high portion of land across the street from Lake Ponchartrain, was relatively unscathed by the hurricane and subsequent flooding --just 10 percent to 20 percent of the campus flooded, although there were many associated problems, such as broken windows and mold. But using branch campuses, UNO managed to start its fall classes on schedule--several days before the city itself reopened.

When the university reopened completely in January 2006, enrollment had risen back to just 12,000 students. "We lost 5,461 students," Maggiore said. "From an enrollment guy's perspective, it was just crazy." His research shows that students with the least investment in the institution were lost permanently. Of the 5,000-plus who did not return, 25 percent were new freshmen and sophomores. As Maggiore explained it, "The front end of your admissions funnel drops out. The latter end stays and keeps graduating. Over the course of three years, the critical mass of continuing students declines." He's now on course, he said, to replace those students and get numbers back on track.
Getting the Message Out
With the campus ready to serve students, Maggiore needed to get the positive message out to students and parents. Another challenge was dealing with drastically reduced staff. In January 2006, because of flooded homes or other reasons, only half of Maggiore's admissions staff had returned.

"We looked for technology to compensate for the lack of manpower," Maggiore said. Prior to Katrina, he had 30 people in the admissions office. In January 2006, he had just 14. "There was a severe hiring shortage after the storm, and when we tried to recruit, [prospective workers] were bombarded by negative media images."

One technology piece that has been useful in helping Maggiore deal with recruitment management in the face of severely reduced staff: an Oracle PeopleSoft CRM product UNO purchased more than a year ago and started using several months ago, after great effort. That product allows the university to "control the communication stream from the admissions office," Maggiore said, by automatically generating customized letters to admitted applicants, to select prospect pools, to high school counselors, and to others. "It's a very sophisticated communication product, totally integrated within PeopleSoft," Miggliore said.

Another solution Maggiore turned to was a service called GoalQuest that helps schools create and target finely crafted messages to recruit and retain students. The university is now in its second year of using GoalQuest. Initially, company representatives came to campus, met with Maggiore and staff, then produced a Web site and a series of targeted messages to students and parents that he said have helped immensely in driving up numbers. UNO retains complete control of the content and look of the site but used no staff to construct it, Miggiore said.

GoalQuest sends a steady stream of tailored e-mail messages to students as they move through the recruitment and admittance process, encouraging them and answering questions. A GoalQuest service center receives student and parent questions via e-mail; Maggiore has a staff member who responds quickly.

The company gave the hard-hit university a substantial two-year price discount, which it recently extended. The cost is such, Miggiore said, that if he enrolled just 20 students that he wouldn't have otherwise, the product has paid for itself.

Students have been receptive to the service. For example, Maggiore gave GoalQuest about 1,500 e-mail addresses of admitted applicants and said half of students have already registered to receive more information. Parents have also been receptive to receiving e-mail messages.

"It's the best of both worlds," Maggiore said. "We know that students love to receive information this way.... It requires minimal resources from campus personnel; it's totally offloaded to [GoalQuest] staff. But it still allows us to customize the message."
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