The Higher Ed Marketer
The Higher Ed Marketer

Episode 17 · 1 year ago

Accessible Admissions Starts with Reducing Friction


When you’re looking at changing the “way we’ve always done it,” you’re working to remove barriers and ultimately move your organization forward.

Being able to then communicate change as an advantage to both prospective students and internal stakeholders is a challenge. But it’s an important one for driving growth.

In this episode of The Higher Ed Marketer, Bart Caylor, President & Founder at Caylor Solutions Inc, and Troy Singer, Senior Account Executive at Think Patented, chat with James Steen, Vice President of Enrollment Management at Houston Baptist University, about how Houston Baptist went test-optional, and how they’ve been able to communicate the benefits of such a critical decision.

They also talked about:

- How test-optional makes admissions more accessible.

- How to approach merit awards without test scores.

- How test-optional reduces friction in the application process.

- How to market test-optional both externally and internally.

Know of a higher education marketing change agent you’d like to hear on the show? Does your university have an interesting story to be featured? Connect with Bart Caylor or Troy Singer. If you’re not on LinkedIn, check the Caylor Solutions or Think Patented websites instead!
To hear more interviews like this one, subscribe to The Higher Ed Marketer on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast platform.  

You were listening to the Higher Ed Marketer, a podcast geared towards marketing professionals in higher education. This show will tackle all sorts of questions related to student recruitment, don't a relations, marketing, trends, new technologies and so much more. If you are looking for conversations centered around where the industry is going, this podcast is for you. Let's get into the show. Welcome to the High Ed Marketer Podcast, where every week we try to create wonderful and interesting conversations with higher ed marketers that we admire for the sake of other high ed markers to clean ideas from or just have something in common with. I'm always joined with my cohost, Bart Taylor, and we are talking to James Steen and he's with Houston back this university, and he is going to give us some wonderful tidbits on a transition that they made here recently. Barred, if you can help me explain a little bit about James and what they're doing? Yeah, I think we're going to have a great conversation with James and I met James Number of years ago at a Council for Christian College Universities Meeting and in Tampa Bay and Hannah will head it off while and have a chance to kind of get to know each other a little bit better. And I've kind of followed him for a couple years on what he's been doing and it's been fascinating and he's an excellent leader and rule kind of looked up to several of his peers and especially in faith based Christian Higher Education, and I know that recently he spoke at a conference that I spoke with with Nacap, and so it was great to be a part of that with him. But he he's done some very innovative things during his time at HBU and it it plays out into higher enrollment numbers, and so I really like the fact that sometimes doing innovative things and making what might be hard decisions sometimes can really pay off and really, in the long run, create a momentum that that you can really ride for a while. And one of the conversations that we'll talk about today is the idea of this whole test optional. You know, whether or not you need an act or an sat score to come to college. It's controversial. There's been a lot of conversation on inside Higher Ed and other industry publications about different aspects of test optional as far as you know, from a from a racial equality and devotion diversity standpoint to just a pragmatic standpoint within the pandemic, and I think it's a interesting to hear James Talk about his journey on that, on that thought process and the decisions that Hbu made this year as it related to that and how HBU is a kind of an interesting place as far as diversity to so it's going to be some really good conversations to to hear from James. Yes, he's a smart individual and a very engaging conversationalist and it's time for us to bring him into the conversation. We're excited to welcome James Steen, vice president of enrollment management at Houston Baptist University, to show welcome James. Thank you so much for having me, Troy. I appreciate it. James, if you could please tell us about your role at Houston Baptist, absolutely so. I've been at Houston Baptist University for almost fifteen years now and before that I was at Baylor University for a little over thirteen years and I describe myself as Babes, basically a recovering admissions counselor. I started way back when, right out of college, I was a tour guide whenever I was a student at Baylor and would drop families off over at the admissions office. So when I was graduating and had no idea what I was going to do after graduation, I thought I could. I could get one of those admissions counselor jobs and do that for a year or two and then go get a real job. Right. So, twenty eight years later,... I am and I'm still a recovering admissions counselor. That's great, James. I don't think I've ever met a small girl or boy who says I want to be a vice president for enrollment when I grew up. Sometimes so exactly. It's not one of those jobs that you start and you say that's that's my career path. But that's exciting. It's definitely not on the top ten list, is it? So you know, when we first kind of started talking a little bit about this podcast, James, I know you and I've known each other for a few years and we reached out to you and said, Hey, let's let's kind of talk a little bit about what's going on at Houston Baptist and in the pre interview you kind of talked about a number of things, but one of the interesting topics that I found, especially in light of what's happened in the last year, eighteen months, with with covid and the pandemic, is just the just this journey and maybe the success that Houston Baptist has after you made the decision to go test optional, and I know a lot of people are aware of that. I just like to talk a little bit about that because, I mean, we have a lot of different people on the listening to the show. Some people might totally understand what's going on. What why you made that choice. Other people might be like what's test optional? Tell us a little bit about what went into that topic, when I went into that decision for Hbu and where you guys are on that. Yeah, thanks, Bart. It's a good question and I know I'll qualify my my stance on test optional by saying, you know, probably five or six years ago I wrote a paper when I was working on my doctor just about the whole test optional process in general and I really took the stance in that and that paper arguing that it's not necessarily. The problem is not necessarily with the test as much as it is with our admissions policies. Right. So where is the the the sat or the act? Certainly, standardized testing is is certainly biased in favor of some versus others. As long as the stance I took was as long as we as enroll of managers, as directors of admission, as long as we're, you know, able to have policies that are fair and equitable, it's not necessarily the test that's the problem. So that was the argument that I took several years ago. So so I didn't necessarily go into the pandemic or go into two thousand and twenty with this whole mindset that test optional was going to be the greatest thing since live spread. But I'm I've kind of I'm coming out of this crazy covid year that we've had really as a convert, if you will, to test optional and I think for for us, for hbu especially, it really has been a game changer. And I'll also say too, if we're HBU, Houston Baptist University is a really unique institution. It's not your typical private or Baptist University. Were Majority Hispanic with well over forty two, forty three percent of our freshman or Hispanic. Were about twenty one, twenty two percent African American. We're about one, nineteen, twenty percent wide and and even, you know, ten to twelve percent Asian. So it's a really, really diverse institution. So we didn't necessarily need to go test optional to help more students of Color Access Hbu. We that that was not the impetus. We really made that switch because we had to. Literally students were not able to take standardized test. They did not have set or act scores readily available. So we really just did it as a strategic decision. But like everybody else did, and I know we can, we can dig into the numbers a little bit further, but but I would say for us at Hbu,... really, really has been a game changer. It's great. And I guess, just out of curiosity, since since we're talking to a lot of marketers on this podcast, how did you end up kind of communicating that and really kind of selling that as a benefit for Hbu, because, I mean, not everybody's doing that and certainly there's various reasons why people might go test optional. Mean certainly a lot of it's the right thing to do as far as diversity and accessibility for four different different groups. But but I think that, you know, the pandemic caust some things. But how did you end up kind of communicating that and how did that become part of the marketing? Yeah, I think that's a good question. We you know, from from our perspective. You know, as you said, we didn't necessarily go into it trying to increase our diversity, and I will say they're there are very legitimate reasons to do that. I know a lot of institutions have had success doing that even prior to the pandemic, and I think it's important, you know, to note as well on the back end that that that institutions that go test optional there their mean sat or mean act goes up right, because those with lower test scores tend not to self report, those with higher test scores do continue to provide test scores and go that route, if you will, and we've seen all of those things happen at Hbu this year as well. But I think we really went into it with the message that we understand what you're going through. We understand that there are problems and issues. There's limited access to standardized testing and so we want to do whatever we can to make HBU and this admissions process is accessible to you as possible. And and and, quite frankly, I think the the marketing of test optional in a lot of ways has almost become ubiquitous. So I don't know many institutions who have really, you know, planted a you know, a stake in the ground and said we're not budging, this is our policy, come hell or high water. I think really all of us, at least every rob of manners that I know, had to make some hard decisions or or change their processes in terms of test optional, in terms of how to get this class is two thousand and twenty one class in the door. So I don't want to say it's sold itself, but but it certainly was not a hard cell, if you will. From a marketing perspective it's great and from what from what I understand what you've said is that it was not in an impediment to building your class, and I think that's probably an important thing. Is that sometimes, when we're looking at these things trying to make decisions about how things move forward, it's like what's going to hurt you versus what could help you if you move those things exactly exactly. And I think in doing that we've now in some ways created an expectation, at least externally, that this is going to be the new norm and I think it'll be interesting to see over the next several years how many institutions go back to requiring an essay to or in act, how many institutions continue to have test optional as a as one of their admissions policies? And I think, not not to speak for the administration at Houston Baptist University, I think, I think for the short run we are very happy remaining test optional and I think there's even, you know, several more ways to leverage that in the future. If I recall correctly in our earlier conversation, tested out test optional. Certainly, as you said, the higher scores tend to self report. You still require scores for merit awards, as that correct? That is not correct. So we actually yeah, so we started the year, you know, with this, with this big question mark of okay, what are we going to do about those...

...who were admitted under test optional that don't have a test score, because obviously merit awards were so, so integral to that process. So we literally came up with an entirely new process for awarding merit and and I'll be honest, it was it was a little touch and go. We we certainly ran numbers. We worked with RNL to come up with, you know, a formulation for our scholarship and merit awarding that we thought could work with test optional. And and in doing that, the tricky thing was our our acceptance letters actually doubles as a scholarship or merit award. So it's congratulations, bar to, you're accepted to Huston Baptish University and you've been awarded the X Y Z scholarship. So so we couldn't even get an acceptance let her out until we figured this process out. And and and the interesting thing was, as we we did have some tweaks along the way with the formula that we were using for test optional. But but in the in the grand scheme of things, if you think of your ad met pool, is kind of a bell curve with you know, you know, those at the top and the bottom and then everybody in the middle, kind of formula forming a nice pretty bell curve. So far. We'll see what it looks like once we get to sensus date and how, you know, the the final yield comes in. But so far we've been able to maintain that Nice, pretty bell curve, if you will, even with our merit award distribution. So so that was something at the beginning of the year I would have told you there's no way we can do a merit award with how to without a test score right, but we've been able to even pivot and figure out a way to do that going forward. That's great. That's great. And then I guess one final question about the test option before we move on. Is there any place in the funnel that you saw a greater increase in in results because of this, this new approach? I mean was it was at the applications? Was it the admits? Was At the deposits? I mean we're in the funnel. Did that kind of plate self out? Yeah, so I think that was the thing that was the most exciting and the biggest surprise to us. So at the top of the funnel, for for for those who, you know, don't know the funnel, you know you've got your inquiries and your applicants. So our inquiries in applicants. Year over year we're down about seven percent. So when your applications are down seven percent, you certainly don't expect to be up at the bottom of the funnel. However, because of test optional, our application completion rate is literally up year over year, about ten points better. So we're able to complete more applications even though we had fewer of them. And my acceptance rate, I was able to accept more. So my acceptance rate year over year is up about ten points. So so. So you do the compounding of that. So even though we're down on applications, I'm able to complete more and admit more at a higher rate because of test optional. So we literally have twenty seven percent more admits this year than we did last year. And and currently at the bottom of the funnel we're sitting on twenty four percent more deposits this year versus last year. And I think the the exciting thing is is, you know, a lot of us, I think, and I was just on an eab called the other day, and about two percent nationally, you know, of all institutions there, their data was showing the deposits were up nationally about two percent. And that's as as compared to last year. Will a lot of us were down on deposits last year. So really, if you go back to two thousand and nineteen and compare this year verse of Two Thousand and Nineteen, we're still up on deposits. And and because of I mean I'm literally giving credit to this new test...

...optional policy. Because of this, this new test optional policy, we're going to enroll far and away a record number of freshmen this fall, which, of course, we're thrilled about. Let's congratulations on that. And and I guess want to take away, as I'm listening to from a from a marketing standpoint, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but would you say that the test optional decision? Obviously there's a lot of things that went into that, but you removed one piece of friction for a student being able to get enrolled to Houston Baptist University. I often talked to my clients and people about removing friction from the students engagement. You know, whether we on the RFI form, if we're asking way too many questions and they just decide that I can't, I can't complete this, this is crazy. Anywhere we can remove friction, it helps kind of smooth it and keep it for it. It sounds to me like, you know, there's a lot of factors involved, but maybe there was a little bit of friction in that. You know, I've got to gather my scores, I've got to gather everything for my application. Do you think that maybe that was part of the what increased your application completion rate? Yeah, I mean I think it's I think it's all of the above. And we're even, you know, good marketers are are obviously good about doing research and market analysis where where we're trying to do a survey of this incoming class to really understand the why behind, you know, some of these numbers and some of these metrics that were experiencing. But, but, but I do think as as enrollment managers, and I you use the word friction, I use the word barriers, I think we have to be very intentional about removing barriers, right and so so the argument to be made is, you know, if you don't have to have an application fee, then then why do you have one? Or One of my mentors, Bill Royal, used to say the only reason to have an application fee is if you're willing to waive it. Right and I think there are really good reasons to have an application fee. But but if you don't have to have an application fee, do you really, you know, should you have one? It becomes a barrier to entry, right. So you can you can ask those things about every, you know, every different stage of the funnel and certainly in the application process. If you don't have to require a test score, then should you? And and I think, I think, especially after experiencing just some of the incredible success that we've had this year, I think the answer for us is no, we don't have to do that and I think if we're going to do it, we're going to go all in and and one of the things that we're looking at even for next year is this, is this idea of do no harm and and if an applicant comes in and maybe checks the I want to go traditional route or checks the test optional route, if for some reason they submit a test score and and maybe they're not admissible with that test score, but they would be admissible under a test optional review process or the other the other scenario could be. Or what if a student who comes in on the traditional route maybe would qualify for a lower scholarship than they would if they were test optional. Right. So do no harm policy would say. It doesn't matter what what methodology you choose when you apply, we're going to we're going to do no harm, right. We're going to give you the benefit of the doubt and if it's if it's best for you to go the traditional route or if it's best for you to go test optional, that's how we're going to consider you for admission and or awards your merit scholarship. So so I think that's how we're researching and really looking into how to make this even better going forward next year. That's great and I liked what you said about, you know, what what royal said about the idea of if you need a if you don't need a fee,...

...don't you don't charge one. I'm sure, though, that some people on campus, when it comes to test optional, especially academics and faculty, would say, actually, that is something that's required, it's something that we need because, you know, for whatever reason they have their belief. How did you deal with facts? I'm sure that came up. It did. It did, and I think and just talking to colleagues, you know, and in different areas of the country and at other institutions. It's it is so true. I think that, you know, if faculty want to know that the students are teaching in the classroom were qualified to be there. And I think we had to do a lot of a lot of homework with with data in terms of looking at studies and resource it showed really GPA and and high school rank and these other metrics that we can get from a high school transcript. It's literally based on three or four years as opposed to a standardized test score that's based on three or four hours. Truly is a better predictor. So when we made the decision to go test optional, we had to we had to sell it or market it externally, but we also had to sell it internally to yeah, and and and convinced faculty that this student that we're considering through this new holistic review process really is not only going to be a good fit but is going to be a contributor, is going to be successful in the classroom. So so it really is kind of a both and approach. We yes, we had to market it externally, but but we did have to do some work internally to convince faculty. And again, well, we'll know when it comes to fall spring. You know what our fault of Spring retention is and we're going to be very, very methodical about going through the data and making sure the decisions that we made were the right ones. That's that's fascinating. That's great. I love the fact that it's it takes internal marketing sometimes as much as it takes externals. So I want to pivot really quick before we kind of close up and everything, and just talk a little bit at the very beginning. You talked about HBU and some of the diversity issues and I just wanted to kind of touch based on that because I think that, you know, it's naturally occurred on your campus with with diversity because of your location and but I think that many schools struggle to to build diversity and you know, and we've talked to a couple different guests about that, and I've been in situations where, you know, people have actually said, can you do some marketing so that we have more diverse students come in and and I look at their, you know, staff and faculty page and I'm like, well, you probably need to have more people who are diverse on your staff before you actually can market more people because that's what that's what they're going to look for. That's what anybody's going to look for is, am I going to fit in here? And if they go to your website and they don't see that they're going to fit in. I don't care how much marketing that I do. I'm just curious what you think about that. Is that is I mean, certainly you've been naturally blessed to have that where you are and I think it's brings a richness to the community. But tell me about you know, what your what your advice is? Yeah, I know, I think you're you're absolutely correct, barred and you you've hit the nail on the head that it really does matter who we hire and and and I really we don't have a, you know, a specific, you know metric that we're trying to hit in terms of hiring policies, but I do have a very diverse team working for me. And so when you know, when perspective students come to camp us, when they go to our admissions page, you know when when they're when they're visiting, they they see lots of students of color and they see admissions counselors from from many different backgrounds and and so it's it's sometimes it's a challenge, right to really try to connect with everybody and and find that institutional fit with everybody. But I think it absolutely...

...begins with and and hiring. Your hiring policies are so, so, so, so critical. That's great. That's great. I'm glad that you've shared that with us and that that's what you've found as well. So Great, James, you've been so generous with your wisdom. But Mart and I are greedy and every week we ask our guest if there's an additional idea or something that you've come across that would be an ideal worth sharing to your colleagues that may be listening to the show. If you could share that please, and anything that's top of mind. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Thanks, Troy. I think one of the things that you know, this this this covid nineteen pandemic, I think has taught us more than anything, and and I think this is true for all of us in a sense, is it we we have to fly the plane, and I'm kind of borrowing that that quote from the movie sully. And you know, it's hard to go wrong with a with a Clint Eastwood directed movie that that Tom Hanks is starring, and right it's just hard to go wrong with a movie like that and it's a true story. But but you know what, everything is blowing up, when everything is going wrong, you still have to fly the plane right. And I think that's true for all of us, whether we're in moment managers, whether we're, you know, chief academic officers, whether we're chief financial officers, whether we're in marketing or wherever we are. During a pandemic, we still have to fly the plane right during during a hurricane. We've had two hurricanes at HBU since I've been here. We still have to fly the plane right. We may be under water, we may be without power, we may be all zooming from home and and having to figure out how to do things virtually but ultimately, you know, we're still called to do everything that we're supposed to do, and so rick our list of what's happening. You know, we still have to figure out how to fly the plane. James, that's wonderful, brilliant and you did a great job of bringing this episode down for landing. Thank you so much. If someone would like to reach you, what's the best way for them? To do so, absolutely. You can ping me or connect on Linkedin. You can certainly shoot me an email. It it's just first initial, last name, J Stein at hbu Dot eedu. I'd love to hear from you. Thank you, James Bart before we depart, do you have any final thoughts? Yeah, I just wanted to really appreciate everything you said, James, and I just sometimes I like to just kind of summarize a couple key points for everyone to kind of think about. I think that a lot of what James talked about. One of the key points I wanted to kind of point out is that a lot of times when you're making decisions and making change, you removing the barriers and then being able to communicate that to the prospective students is very important. I think marketing that and explaining that sometimes. I'm a big believer that even if you're on your on your application page or even as you're getting ready to start the application, explain to them what they're getting ready to, explain to them how it's going to work, remove any barriers of them wanting to just jump because they're overwhelmed. But I think the other thing that I will wanted to point out is that just how HBU really took and had to do some internal marketing, and I think sometimes we forget about that. I think that we're so busy and focused as marketers and sometimes we're in small, small offices where we don't have you know, we're overwhelmed already with the amount of work that we need to do. But I think that sometimes when big major changes are happening, especially in the enrollment office, being able to communicate that internally will save a lot of political headache and heartache later on, and so I think that's so important to kind of think about how to make sure that our messaging is coing both ways, both internally and externally. So I really appreciate you know, you pointing that out, James, and that's just kind of a key takeaway when everybody to think about. Absolutely well said, Bart and thank... both for a wonderful episode. To all of our listeners. We just want to remind you that the Higher Ed Marketer podcast is sponsored by Kaylor solutions and education marketing and branding agency and by Think, patented, a marketing, execution, printing and mailing provider of higher its solutions. On behalf of the COHOST, Bart Kaylor, I'm troy singer. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to the Higher Ed Marketer. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in your favorite podcast player. If you're listening with apple PODCASTS, we'd love for you to leave a quick rating of the show. Simply tap the number of stars you think the podcast deserves. Until next time,.

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