In a Mendota Heights coffee shop one evening earlier this month, Katie McCarney met high school seniors accepted to the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University for a latte and a soft sell.

Next Friday is the deadline when seniors choose where they’ll go to college this fall, a decisive moment for them. For admissions officers like McCarney, it’s the week that reveals whether months of work has paid off.

The number of 17- and 18-year-olds in the U.S. has been declining and, for the fourth year in a row, colleges are forecast to enroll fewer students this fall than a year earlier.

That’s placed college leaders and admissions officers under more pressure to deliver enough students to maintain revenue, academic standards and competitiveness rankings. Throughout the country, they’re resorting to more frequent messaging, seductive financial aid offers and other ways to “meet students where they are.”

“In years like this, you just really can’t take anything for granted,” McCarney said. “It forces us to be a little bit more creative to capture students’ attention and their ­excitement.”

At the coffee shop, about 10 prospective students, some with parents along, stopped in for McCarney’s informal gathering. She told them the men’s and women’s Catholic colleges, located a few miles apart in St. Joseph, are a tight-knit community that provide many impressive academic programs and other opportunities.

Meeting with accepted students in coffee shops and elsewhere is a relatively new tactic for the two colleges, which share an admissions department. In 2012, both saw a dip in what colleges call the “yield rate,” the number of accepted students who go on to enroll. And last year, the number of applicants at both schools fell sharply.

McCarney and her colleagues are working harder after students are notified of admission to assure the schools will have enough students in the fall freshman class. Even top administrators get involved. On a Thursday night earlier in the month, the presidents of both colleges met accepted students from the Twin Cities west metro at a pizza restaurant in Edina.

Tony Amelse, associate director of admission, opened the event with a robust call for the students to pledge their enrollment. “As we get closer and closer to May 1, we are getting more and more excited,” he said. “We’re hoping you all commit.”

Ditching ‘wait-and-see’ approach

Colleges are marketing more broadly, with more tools and much earlier than ever, even reaching out to high school sophomores.

Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter offers a smartphone app where potential students can browse photos of the 154-year-old campus, learn about the school’s history and even apply for admission.

“Students are more often than not looking at Web pages over the glossy materials we’ve been sending out for years,” said Tom Crady, the school’s vice president for enrollment management.

Mary Keenan, assistant vice chancellor in academic affairs at the University of Minnesota Duluth, said admission staff members are messaging prospective and admitted students more often and with more purpose.

“A number of years ago, an institution may have [had a] ‘wait-and-see’ approach,” she said. “Now … I think it’s just being more proactive in guiding students through the process.”

Colleges and universities also are looking farther away for students.

At St. Olaf College in Northfield nearly 60 percent of first-year students in 2005 were from Minnesota. Last year, only 44 percent were from the state.

St. Olaf began actively recruiting students “from coast to coast” in the mid-2000s, said Michael Kyle, vice president for enrollment and college relations. Out-of-state students are largely from Illinois and California, he said.

“If there just are fewer customers out there, which there are, there’s going to be increased competition,” Kyle said. “That clearly is happening across the country.”

Five times a year, St. John’s and St. Benedict host special recruitment events for accepted students from out of state. The colleges pay half the trip cost for students who fly in. About 60 high school seniors attended the most recent such gathering in mid-April.

An ‘arms race for students’

The relative ease of applying to college in the age of the Internet also has swelled competition for students. Many seniors use a tool called the Common Application to apply to several schools without having to repeat basic information. More students are applying to more institutions as a result, said Alexandra Djurovich, a senior data analyst in the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. “You don’t know which one they’re going to choose,” she said.

St. Olaf’s Kyle calls it “the arms race for students.” In turn, schools have to make more offers to offset the uncertainty of who will actually enroll.

Gustavus Adolphus attracted nearly 10 percent more applicants in 2014 than it did in 2011, and it boosted the number of students it admitted. Even so, its yield rate fell for a third straight year.

At the University of Minnesota and St. Olaf, applications and accepted students have risen in recent years. Both have also seen declines in yield rate.

Admissions officers are playing a difficult game. If they accept too many students, they risk damaging the school’s reputation.

One tool they can use to bring in students is to increase financial aid. For instance, the University of Minnesota disbursed $53.9 million in scholarships last year, compared to $38.2 million in 2010.

Seeing a sizable aid package makes a big impact on students’ college choices, even if a different school with a smaller scholarship offering would cost less overall, said Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon and past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Prospective students, Rawlins said, “keep scores in interesting ways, and it’s not always rational.”

The trade-off for colleges, most of which are nonprofit institutions, is that they must balance greater aid costs with reductions elsewhere.

A rise on the horizon

The number of high schoolers is expected to bottom soon and rise slowly over the next decade. Admissions leaders say this is encouraging, but the strategies and tactics that have evolved over the past few years to deal with the more competitive recruiting environment aren’t likely to disappear.

For now, high school seniors are the beneficiaries of intensive marketing and spending by colleges to get them.

Anna Gudknecht, a high school senior who attended the Edina event hosted by St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict, said her computer inbox was filled daily with e-mails from colleges. “They all try to pitch you their deals,” she said.

Gudknecht said she applied to just three schools, but many of her friends sent applications to five or eight.

“It’s nice that you can find information about the schools easily if you wanted,” she said.

 

Tyler Gieseke is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.