Recruit & Retain (Charter Oak State College)

Go Back to Get Ahead

Charter Oak State College is Connecticut’s public online college. It is also one of a small group of degree aggregators who were created to assist adults return to college and finish their degrees. This academic year, we increased our enrollment by 38 percent. And we didn’t just increase our own enrollment; we were responsible for 1,500 total enrollments in our system of 17 state institutions. If you are interested in enrollment and recruitment, you know that the public higher education sector has not focused on this the way the independent sector has, so how did a relatively small public college produce such unusual results?

The first fact that leaps out at anyone studying higher education demographics is that the number of 18 year olds is currently declining in most states; in Connecticut that decline is 1.8 percent per year. The second fact that should jump out is that the 18- to 24-year-old full-time and residential market is a mere 15-20 percent of the total higher education market. Students older than 24 represent over 40 percent of the market. If you add part-time students to those over 24, you have nearly 80 percent of the market. So the opportunity for increased enrollments is not with first-time, fulltime students (a market that is intensely competitive and growing more so) but rather with adults.

Making Changes

In Connecticut, Dannel Malloy, our governor, understood that his population of 18-year-olds was declining and his incumbent workforce needed improving. So he made a strategic investment in welcoming adult students with 12 credits or more who had been out of school for 18 months back to college. He offered them a “buy one course and get one free” option for up to nine matched credits. And he asked Charter Oak to manage the program. He gave us 120 days to buy and configure a CRM, build a website, create and launch both a direct mail and a statewide marketing campaign, hire a set of admissions folks to handle the over 9,000 inquiries we received and train our 16 sister institutions.

My team did all of that and more. We turned over 100,000 webpage visitors into 9,000 inquiries then into 1,500 actual enrollments. Those new enrollees persisted to the next semester at rates averaging 50 percent at our community colleges, a 72 percent rate at Charter Oak and as high as 81 percent at one of our four-year institutions. Our total cost per recruited student was under $1,000. Those of you who work at independent colleges will understand how remarkable that number is and my public sector colleagues will be amazed at the retention numbers. But before I stop bragging, let me point out that we converted 50 percent of the inquiries to prospects, 50 percent of the prospects to applicants, and 70 percent of the applicants to enrollments.

I believe that higher education is being squeezed sufficiently by money, demographics and new technologies, that it is entering a period of significant reorganization. And “reorganization” means mergers, acquisitions and closures. Our system has all those same pressures, but responded with a collaborative effort.

Sixteen traditional colleges and universities (12 community colleges and four state universities) partnered with an adult degree completion online college and worked to bring adult students back to college. When you look at the results, 75 percent of the enrollments landed at the 16 traditional schools with the remainder choosing Charter Oak. This result was good for the 16 and great for our school. Charter Oak, the adult specialist institution, provided the leadership and project execution while the policy and investment came from the governor and the legislature. Our system leadership kept an eye on the project deliverables and budget, and ran interference with anyone who got confused.

We are in an age where colleges and universities must embrace their niche. They must be absolutely the best at what they do. And they must find ways to embrace assistance from those who are great at the things at which they are not so great. This isn’t particularly new, but for higher education, it is increasingly critical. And the Connecticut story should give everyone hope that there is a way to compete for enrollments if systems partner with an institution that specializes in returning adult students and a state administration that is serious about improving its incumbent workforce. I know that the latter exists in many of our 50 states, and I can vouch for the existence of at least one degree completion institution that stands ready to help.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

Ed Klonoski is the president of Charter Oak State College,(www.CharterOak.edu), a Connecticut public online college for adults completing degrees.

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