Iowa universities spending more on student names

Name lists grow student prospect pools

Students at the University of Iowa law school listen to a lecture.  (The Gazette)
Students at the University of Iowa law school listen to a lecture. (The Gazette)

It’s not like Kaylee Gattone didn’t already know about the University of Iowa. Her brother attended and talked a lot about campus life, as did others from her hometown of Oak Lawn, Ill.

But the 17-year-old high school senior and college prospect said she didn’t actually make it to the Iowa City campus until she started receiving mailed notifications about open houses and campus tours.

“They made me want to visit the school, just to see it,” Gattone said. “I kept them on my fridge, and they kept my attention.”

That’s what recruiting officials are counting on. And it’s why some schools are targeting more prospective students — like Gattone — with informational fliers, postcards, bulletins, emails, and phone calls, according to data requested by The Gazette through an open records request.

One thing universities and colleges do to find prospective students to target is purchase lists of names collected by companies like ACT and SAT, which administer college entrance exams to high school students across the country.

Since 2009, the UI Office of Admissions has more than doubled its spending on names, and thus contact information, of potential students in hopes of growing its prospect pool. Last year, in fact, UI paid $122,758 for 315,667 names, compared to $49,877 for 171,605 names in 2009, according to admissions data.

Iowa State University’s name buying also has spiked since 2009, jumping from $66,127 to $106,622 last year.

The number of names bought by the University of Northern Iowa has grown at a slower pace since 2010, the earliest data available, from 19,122 to about 30,000 in the budget year that just ended. UNI officials said their name shopping could increase at a faster clip as competition grows.

But industry experts say some recruiters are having less success converting names into enrolled students, meaning the return on those name investments is shrinking, said Jeffrey Rich, vice president of agency services for Cedar Rapids-based Stamats, a marketing and consulting firm that specializes in higher education research, among other things.

Officials with some universities and colleges across the country recently have even asked whether buying names remains a wise use of money.

“My response is, yeah, you are seeing diminishing returns,” Rich said. “But you can’t abandon this search strategy. It’s the bread and butter of every four-year college and university.”

Instead, Rich said, recruiters should “increase the size of their funnel at the top” by widening the scope of the names they buy. And they should hone in on segments of the population more likely to produce results by targeting students in specific geographic regions, with specific family incomes, who have articulated specific goals or program interests.

“If you do either of those things, you should increase the number of enrolled students,” he said. “But it gets more expensive and more difficult every year.”

‘The name of the game’

At the University of Iowa, admissions officials are doing what Rich suggests — they’re buying more names and getting more specific as to who they want. For example, instead of pulling only the names of juniors and seniors, as was the practice a few years ago, UI recruiters now are seeking sophomore names, and soon freshmen or even middle school students will be targeted, said Emil Rinderspacher, UI director of admissions.

“We are going younger for sure,” he said. “That is part of the new recruitment plan as we begin to think about the importance of Iowa enrollment. We’re building a younger student base.”

The Board of Regents in June made enrolling Iowans a priority for its public universities when it approved a new way of allocating state support that ties 60 percent to resident enrollment. If enrollment figures remain unchanged, the new allocation model could make ISU the top funded university in the state by 2018, and it could pull up to $47.8 million in UI funding over several years.

Among the UI efforts to avert such a shift in funding, Rinderspacher said, his office is considering outsourcing its name buying to a firm that will shop for names on its behalf, purchase relevant lists, and then send out information using complex formulas that can target students based on age, interest, geographic location, and stage in the school-shopping process.

Outsourcing the process can be helpful as more names are becoming available through a growing number of companies tracking prospective students. And the firms have methods of sorting through information to make sure clients aren’t spending on duplicate names.

“It’s the name of the game in the recruiting business,” Rinderspacher said. “You want to reach students early in the process. You want to reach parents, if you can. But you have to have the technology … to support an effort like this. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of names.”

The companies also can build brand awareness by tracking student visits to websites and showing them UI advertisements, according to Rinderspacher.

“They work with you on your goals and determine who and how many people to target,” he said. “They get Iowa in your face.”

But the cost can be steep. A firm can charge $250,000 for its services, Rinderspacher said.

“So we are still thinking about this,” he said.

But the UI’s name investments, so far, have proved successful in that they’ve brought prospective students to campus. And campus visits are the strongest recruiting tool they have, Rinderspacher said.

“Everything we do is to get students on campus,” he said. “We are friendly and welcoming, and it’s important for students to see if they can see themselves here.”

‘Kind of a race’

Iowa State also has seen good returns from its purchased lists of names, and years ago it began partnering with a prospecting firm — Virginia-based Royall & Company, which focuses on institutional recruiting, enrollment and goal advancement. Phil Caffrey, director of admissions operations and policy for ISU, said the firm has been helpful in its speed acquiring names and getting information out.

“It’s kind of a race,” he said. “The first one to the student’s mailbox wins.”

ISU has bought more than 300,000 names a year since 2011, and Caffrey said that type of student search is an important part of the university’s overall recruitment effort. He said ISU adds 30,000 to 40,000 students to its prospect search through its name purchases.

“So I would say that we consider them successful,” he said. “Otherwise we wouldn’t keep doing them.”

Caffrey said he expects ISU to continue contracting with Royall to widen the top of its prospect funnel using targeted methods.

“We are interested in maintaining our enrollment,” he said. “And, each year, we have to work a little bit harder to do that because of the competitive environment — especially here in our state.”

UNI worked with Royall for the first time this year in hopes of adding to the list of names it already has amassed organically through college fairs and independent inquiries. UNI spokesman Scott Ketelsen said his university is more flexible in its name buying habits, and admissions officials decide on an annual basis whether buying more names is worth the investment.

“So far, our class for 2015 is looking great, and we may make the decision that we don’t need to buy more names,” Ketelsen said. “If you are looking strong, there’s no need to buy any more names. If you’re looking weak, you might feel obliged to buy more.”

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