Tiny College Stakes Growth on Enrollment Software
- By Linda L. Briggs
As one of the smallest liberal arts colleges in the United States, Shimer College is facing some formidable challenges. With just 100 students, Shimer focuses its curriculum exclusively on the "Great Books," from the Bible to Homer to Nietzsche to Virginia Woolf. Despite the fact that the college ranks in the top 1 percent of U.S. colleges and universities in producing doctoral candidates, it is working hard to maintain and grow its enrollment.
Just ask Elaine Vincent about the challenges Shimer faces. Until recently, Vincent was director of admissions for the college, which is located near downtown Chicago, where it now shares campus space and some student services with the Illinois Institute of Technology. "It's a niche school, and we must grow," Vincent said bluntly. "And when you're tight on funds, growth becomes an even bigger challenge."
With no lectures, only discussion and writing, and classes with fewer than 12 students, Shimer clearly needed special marketing efforts to get the word out to prospective students. But the college faced some hurdles. In recent history, it emerged from bankruptcy and moved from an extremely depressed area on Lake Michigan to its current location. Shimer is now working hard on something of a resurrection for the tiny college. "It's always been one of those schools that never had enough money to do what it wanted to do, basically," Vincent said.
Now, Shimer is staking some of its hopes for growth--to the modest but more sustainable 250-student size the college once enjoyed--on enrollment management software.
All schools need ways to market their unique aspects to students--and a college as unique as Shimer needs that even more so than most. "Our students are very serious," Vincent said. "Books are the original sources [in class], starting with the Bible and going through Plato and Aristotle.... Students almost never read a textbook. This is a college for [those] who love to read, write, and discuss."
To get the word out about Shimer and its unique program to enough prospective student names, Shimer staff work with an initial list of prospective students, or "suspects," that exceeds 100,000 names. With an IT staff of half a person, essentially, Shimer was using an in-house relational database to manage its large list of names. But because Vincent had come to Shimer from a state university that handled enrollment management as part of a large software suite, she had a sense of what could be achieved with enrollment management software. She knew Shimer needed something inexpensive--and with little IT help and the college's unique needs--extremely malleable and user-friendly.
The software packages Shimer reviewed initially tended to be large, comprehensive software suites with far more functions than the college needed--or could hope to afford. "The solutions we looked at initially were more expensive than we could afford and had less flexibility [than the solution they eventually chose]," Vincent said.
In the end, Vincent stumbled on an affordable, on demand enrollment management product called Enrollment Rx. "In one meeting, [Enrollment Rx was] able to demonstrate that it would give us the flexibility we needed, the information sharing that we needed, among ourselves and with our superiors, and a reporting function that was well beyond anything else I could hope for," she said.
Enrollment Rx, which focuses heavily on enrollment and retention software for the education sector, is built on the Force.com platform from Salesforce.com. The Force.com platform employs cloud computing technology in which multiple tenants--software applications--are hosted remotely on Force.com servers as a service. Because it is built on Force.com, Enrollment Rx, which bills itself as a "student relationship management" package, is offered as an on demand (also called software-as-a-service) application.
The fact that Enrollment Rx runs and is managed off site was essential for Shimer. According to Heidi Angeles, who serves as the (part-time) database manager and administrative assistant for enrollment management, installing and managing enrollment software on campus was out of the question. "We don't have an IT staff here," Angeles explained. "Having a relational database housed on our servers would have been very difficult, both in space and in manpower. We simply don't have a person to manage that for us. Enrollment Rx is in the cloud, so we don't have to worry about where the data is kept, and if it is in a secure environment. That is an amazing thing for us. It takes a lot of weight off our shoulders."
Before Enrollment Rx, Shimer's enrollment management process involved lots of hand entries into different software, including a basic in house database. When a recruiter sent an e-mail to a student, for example, he or she also had to remember to enter that fact into the in house database by hand. Similarly, a financial aid staff member would have to perform several steps to see who had been admitted, since those notes were kept separate from the enrollment database. "It was a useful tool," Vincent said, "but it had considerable limitations that were beginning to frustrate us as we were trying to grow."
The sheer quantity of names Shimer needs to track at any one time could overwhelm a smaller system. Vincent said that the "suspect" list of those who might be interested in attending Shimer even remotely can add up to several hundred thousand names. Owing to the size of the database, Shimer ended up discarding some of the student information; the previous system simply couldn't handle it. "We were throwing out information," Vincent said, "because we couldn't toggle between 'What does a [potential student] want to be when he grows up,' 'What's his SAT score,' and 'Is he interested in a program that we might be offering?'"
Enrollment Rx, according to the company's president, Lawrence Levy, handles that quantity of names--and much larger lists--without a hitch.
One of Enrollment Rx's hallmarks is extreme flexibility, something that is critical to small schools lacking extensive IT staff. As an example, Shimer can easily add (and has done so) new fields to its student prospects database without technical help from Enrollment Rx. There's no testing or debugging of the new field, as is often required by larger, more complex packages, and reports can be run immediately that include the new data.
For example, Shimer recently added an unusual new question to its inquiry form for prospective students: Have you read a book recently that you'd like to talk about? The answer can help guidance counselors establish a relationship with prospects and can help assess the student's fit with the college, as well as his or her interests. It's not, however, a question commonly asked on inquiry forms.
Shimer has been running its new enrollment software for just a few months--too short a time to have solid numbers--but Vincent was positive about the software's prospects. "We haven't gone [through a full enrollment] cycle," Vincent said, "but the combination of flexibility and reporting functions alone would have been enough to sell me this product."
Today, interim Director of Admissions Cassie Sherman said Shimer continues to be pleased with its choice of Enrollment Rx. Since the rollout in July, she said, "We're figuring out all kinds of [tasks] we can do with it.... It makes a lot of very laborious things that we had to go through much easier."
Shimer's current conversion rate now from prospect to applicant is 6 percent. If the tiny college can target its list buys better and thus spend less buying names, as well as market the school more selectively and with better results, the savings could be huge. Vincent said she sees that happening, although she knows it will take an enrollment cycle or two. "I believe that within a year, maybe two, we will get enough information so that we can narrow our buy [of names] and see improved numbers," Vincent said. "If that figure even goes up a percentage, that's enormous."