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NIU leaders plan for a brighter future

August 10, 2015
Eric Weldy lauds “the new admissions office” at NIU during President Doug Baker’s Aug. 7 Strategic Plan Implementation Leadership Retreat.

Eric Weldy lauds “the new admissions office” at NIU during President Doug Baker’s Aug. 7 Strategic Plan Implementation Leadership Retreat.

Recruitment and retention took center stage Friday morning when nearly 150 NIU leaders gathered for President Doug Baker’s strategic plan implementation retreat.

Participants, who ranged from department chairs and directors to deans and vice presidents, received a bird’s-eye view of NIU’s work to reverse declining enrollment and deal with diminished state funding.

The first 60 minutes provided a close and informative look at the budget, its realities and its unknowns.

“People are asking questions,” Baker said. “We need to have clear and accurate information out about where we are and where we’re heading.”

Fiscal Year 2016 will serve as “a fiscal bridging year,” the president said, as NIU administrators “reorient the budget process and position the university for the future” through program prioritization, process reengineering and growing enrollments. NIU must increase efficiencies, control spending and build revenue, he said.

Alan Phillips, vice president for Administration and Finance, told the group of his goal to reach a point where the university drafts its budgets five years out. He’s buoyed by his confidence in NIU’s faculty and staff.

“We have a lot of exceptional people who are working extremely hard to figure out how to get through this and move us forward in the best way,” Phillips said.

Presentations on transformations in NIU admissions and marketing, six shining examples of the strategic triangle model and roundtable brainstorming sessions on “hooking into the recruitment funnel” illustrated the positive changes planned or under way that are beginning to address the enrollment opportunities.

“I’m just thrilled by what I saw today,” Baker said. “There was good energy and really powerful ideas in the room today.”

And, despite downward trends in enrollment and funding in recent years, Provost Lisa Freeman said that there is an upward trend in the levels of transparency, collaboration and dismantling of silos.

Dani Rollins

Dani Rollins

Much of the morning focused on “the recruitment funnel” and its six levels: prospect, inquiry, applied, decision, confirmed and enrolled.

Competition is stiff for a shrinking pool of prospective students in Illinois; meanwhile, Baker told the group, tuition hikes meant to offset state budget cuts have made the affordability of higher education a significant challenge for many. To begin to address that concern, NIU held local tuition and room-and-board charges constant last year, and they will go down this year.

Universities of NIU’s size are interacting with around 200,000 and 300,000 students at the top of the funnel to enroll a few thousand new students each fall, said Dani Rollins, director of admissions.

These types of yield rates are similar across the country, Rollins added.

NIU’s “new admissions office” will thrive through efficiency, customer service, recruitment of talented staff, ongoing training and a commitment to accurate and authentic communication, she said.

Plans include hiring admissions counselors fluent in Spanish, traveling to grow new markets, updating technology, implementing daily follow-up protocols for new prospects, beginning student-to-student engagement earlier in the process and creating a Campus Recruitment Committee.

Departments can help by ensuring their websites are up-to-date and by creating and maintaining points of pride. Faculty members should meet with students, share their personal stories and hand out their business cards, Rollins added.

“My vision is for us to become one of the top-rated enrollment management operations in the country,” said Eric Weldy, vice president for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.

Jennice O’Brien, director of Creative Services, and Abby Dean, director of University Marketing, explained the key priorities of the Division of Marketing and Communications.

Jennice O’Brien (left) and Abby Dean explain marketing and web efforts during the Aug. 7 Strategic Plan Implementation Leadership Retreat.

Jennice O’Brien (left) and Abby Dean explain marketing and web efforts
during the Aug. 7 Strategic Plan Implementation Leadership Retreat.

Chief among those is NIU’s need to embrace a consistent message and look, and to make the university’s digital assets work harder.

“We have 60,000 web pages at NIU. We need to stop using the website as a digital filing cabinet and start treating it like the powerful tool it is,” O’Brien said. “Your website is a window, not a billboard, and prospective students are looking in.”

“If you’re online, whether it’s social media or your webpage, students are watching,” Dean added, “and that’s a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to our students.”

Initiatives under way include a study of NIU’s brand perception; creation of a recruitment journey map that will clarify the steps prospective students follow and indicate how NIU can best help them; and a pilot project that will draft sub-branding for the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Unified voices that reinforce NIU’s value proposition through a common narrative will make university messages more authentic, Dean said: “We need to communicate as one.”

Next on the Marketing and Communications agenda is data-informed decision-making, an alignment of recruitment communications, an increase of major-specific digital marketing and enhanced collaboration with community colleges.

Collaboration was mentioned frequently during the morning’s spotlight on the strategic triangle model implementation.

Among the examples were a variety of ongoing retention efforts, on-campus and alumni-sponsored internships and new opportunities with Nankai University in China.