The Chronicle of Higher Education: Some Colleges Put 'Success Coaching' in the Service of Recruitment

The Chronicle of Higher Education
January 9, 2011

Each year the University of Dayton sends accepted applicants a booklet describing how—and why—they should enroll. "For the next four years, you'll be finding yourself," Page 13 says. "Here's how to not get lost." There follows a description of Dayton's "success coaching" program, which the university offers, free of charge, to all freshmen throughout their first semester.

Distinct from academic advisers, success coaches help students with various challenges, like getting along with roommates, overcoming homesickness, and managing time and money. Although some colleges have provided such services for years, a handful now use coaches to contact students months before they matriculate—and to engage prospective students who have yet to decide where, or even if, to enroll. In other words, personalized coaching is no longer just a retention tool. It's also become a front-end enrollment strategy.

Sundar Kumarasamy, Dayton's vice president for enrollment management, describes the university's success coaching as a selling point, one that it promotes heavily to families before the May 1 deposit deadline. "It's a differentiator," he says. "It's peace of mind for parents. They want to know, 'What am I going to get that's different at this institution from other institutions?'"

Dayton provides its service through InsideTrack, a student-success coaching firm based in San Francisco. Typically, applicants learn of the option when they receive their acceptance letters, and they may request a telephone appointment with a coach even if they have not sent a deposit. Soon after Dayton mails acceptances, the university directs the coaches to contact about a quarter of its admitted applicants, who—because of their geographic distance from the campus or any of several other factors—are less likely to enroll than other applicants are.

Once students have sent their deposits, Dayton reaches out to those who, according to statistical modeling, are likely to need the most support once they enroll. Last year InsideTrack's coaches contacted about half of Dayton's 2,060 incoming freshmen during the spring and summer, to ask each one about his or her goals, and to answer questions about classes they intended to take, campus services they might need, and so on.

Once the semester began, the university provided intensive coaching, involving up to three appointments per month, to 400 freshmen. Students had the option of continuing the service, for $600 to $900, during their second semester (about 20 did so in 2010).

Dayton pays an annual fee, in what it describes as the low six figures, to InsideTrack. Mr. Kumarasamy considers it a sound investment. Since adopting the coaching, in 2008, he says, the university's first-year retention rates have improved. He also credits the coaching calls with helping the university limit "summer melt"—the percentage of freshmen who fail to enroll in the fall despite having sent deposits.

"This program is true to our mission," he says. "It's experiential marketing, a way to create a brand experience at a very early stage."

'An Extension of the Admissions Office'

The early stages of communication are especially important when recruiting among older populations. In recent years, several institutions that serve adult students have hired InsideTrack to help them coach prospective applicants. Among them is the College of New Rochelle, in New York.

When Elza Dinwiddie-Boyd, dean of the college's School of New Resources, heard about InsideTrack a year ago, she figured that success coaching might help her program retain more students. But because the college had been struggling to increase its enrollment of adults in the first place, officials decided to hire InsideTrack to engage prospective students instead.

That decision helped alleviate what had been a continuing challenge for New Rochelle: finding the time to contact and counsel all of the adults who inquired about the college. After all, the same staff members who call inquirers have many other duties, such as advising students one on one. And the college did not have the budget to hire additional employees.

"Adults who inquire need to be called within 48 to 72 hours," Ms. Dinwiddie-Boyd says. "My staff might call, leave a message, and not call them back for a week because they're so busy with other students. But if we don't call them, we know that another institution will."

Last summer InsideTrack's coaches started calling many of the prospective students in New Rochelle's database. The results impressed Ms. Dinwiddie-Boyd. So far, InsideTrack's coaches have converted about 30 percent of inquiries into enrolled students; over the same time period, the college converted 11 percent.

The relationship does not stop at the point of enrollment. InsideTrack's coaches continue communicating with students for the first six weeks of the semester. Ms. Dinwiddie-Boyd says the service helped the college jump-start its enrollment. "The coaches have more time to keep working with people until they close the deal or someone says, 'Don't call me anymore,'" she explains. "They can do the hand-holding that adult students need."

Chestnut Hill College, in Pennsylvania, hired InsideTrack early last year to bolster its recruitment and improve its yield. As part of a pilot study, the college decided to provide coaching to half of the 1,800 students it had accepted for the incoming freshman class for 2010-11.

At first, some admissions staffers were not sure what to make of the plan, says Jodie Smith, dean of enrollment management. "They said, 'Whoa, wait a minute, are you trying to replace us?' But in fact, this is supplemental, an extension of the admissions office."

After getting a heads-up from the college, about 900 students received telephone calls from coaches, who asked them various questions. Had they visited the campus? Had they spoken with a professor in the field of interest? Had they filed all of their forms?

Although officials hoped the calls would persuade students to enroll, Ms. Smith says the conversations were also meant to help students determine whether the campus would be a good fit. "The advantage of the coaches was their neutrality," she says. "Yes, we were paying them, but they were working with the students to make a good decision. In some cases, we were not the right fit, and the coaches would work with them through that."

Ultimately, the college's yield was higher, by 2.4 percentage points, for students who had received coaching compared with those who had not. Enrolled freshmen from the experimental group have continued speaking regularly with their coaches, on Chestnut Hill's dime. The college plans to examine the long-term impact of the service on enrollment and retention.

Numbers aside, Ms. Smith sees value in having coaches contact even the many students who do not end up enrolling. "There's a nonmeasurable aspect to this," she says. "We're getting our name out there through other venues, and that might not take hold of a person at the moment, but it might click down the road. I don't think you can disregard or discredit all the benefits of that."