“Our assistant director and I looked at each other and we were like, I bet we can't have the open house. So what do we do?"
“One of the problems we have in higher ed is, as I call it, making a signal through the noise. High school kids have so much coming at them. Think about how much marketing stuff they get every day, on Spotify, on Facebook, etc. How can we in the admissions office send a signal to get through all that noise. We realized as the schools were starting shutting down that the students were going to be on their screens constantly, more so than even usual. And we needed to take that opportunity to communicate with them. I kept saying this phrase over and over: ‘I don't think we can over-communicate with them.’
When things started shutting down, we were in the middle of making plans for our big open house. Our assistant director and I looked at each other and we were like, I bet we can't have the open house. So what do we do? I said we’ve got to have something virtual and personalized. We don't talk to our students like they are a mass of people. That's not who we are at Valdosta State. We are the ones who get to know that individual, that mom or dad who wants to come back to school now that his/her kids are a bit older, the student who has been home educated and is accustomed to one-on-one attention. We strive to get to know our students as individuals to understand what their hopes and dreams are, you know, what it is that they want to do with their life. Then that becomes our mission.
That's what happened to me as a student here. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and they were like, ‘Come here, buddy, we're gonna help you out.’ And that's what's kept me here for 20 years. And so that was something that we really remained focused on was communicating, communicating.
Valdosta State uses a lot of text messaging to communicate with our students. We also have a chat bot called Blaze, which is our mascot. You can ask Blaze questions all the time. And we’ve spent a lot of time on Blaze’s knowledge base. When Blaze gets a question it doesn't know, an email is sent to one of my staff members with a subject line saying something like “Hey, I got a question and I didn't know the answer.” Then we build in the answer so the next time Blaze gets that question, he (really it) will know the answer.
So we were using a lot of things like that to communicate, but I just, you know, go back to this real human interaction that I think people were looking for. And so we definitely used that time in the spring to talk to our prospective students. My student workers, during normal springs, would be spending time leading physical tours. So we quickly developed a virtual tour and our student workers led about five or six tours a day. We limited it to five students per tour. The prospective students felt heard and seen and they knew we were taking the time to get to know them.
What's interesting is we had that huge increase in enrollment. I mean, it shocked me, to be honest. We had the record enrollment in Valdosta State’s history. About 1,000 more new students for the Fall of 2020 than in the Fall of 2019. Normally, if I’m 50 students up, I'm dancing. So, with us being a midsize school in South Georgia, not near any booming metropolis, we have to work hard for each student. But, again, it’s a genuine place, you know, and so we get to know them.
I lead a committee of all the directors of admissions in Georgia and we were all sharing our numbers. None of us could trust the numbers. We all had admitted these students because the State of Georgia became test score optional. The students weren’t able to take the spring tests, so the state let us admit students based on GPA alone. Well guess what? All of us schools admitted those students. And so we were all kind of going, okay, but where are they going to go? What was interesting is that we at Valdosta State University had the highest increase of any school in Georgia, at 9.2%. Georgia Tech was right behind us at 9%.
I've thought about this a lot and it really was the entire university that came together to enroll this class. We made it a priority to ensure students felt heard and seen. We don't just admit you and say, nice to meet you. Our mission is to create a personalized relationship with our prospective students.
We have a great team. We have had staff members working in this office, five, eight some 32 years, and I’ll just be blunt, it's not for the money. It’s for changing lives. When you’ve worked hard to recruit a student and to make sure the university knows that student’s hopes and dreams, there is nothing better than having the student thank you, sometimes years later. They come up to you and say you are the reason I came into college, or you were the reason I am now fill in the blank. What better thing could you want in your life? It’s just the best.”
-- Ryan Hogan, Director of Admissions, Valdosta State (December 2020).