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On Monday, Westminster College in Fulton announced a 25 percent increase in freshman enrollment for the 2020-21 school year.

The college also announced plans to continue waiving its ACT and SAT requirement this year. Westminster originally waived the standardized test requirement in April to help prospective students during the COVID-19 quarantine, administrators said.

Dr. Paul Orscheln, Vice President of Enrollment Services, Marketing, and Strategic Communications, said one contributing factor to the increase in freshman population was going test-optional last spring.

"With the cancellations of the ACT and SAT tests last spring and summer, we knew many students wouldn't have the opportunity to provide a score or improve their score to meet our admissions requirements," he explained. "Given the amount of stress they were already managing with going online to finish their senior year, we felt we needed to reduce any barriers we could to attend Westminster."

At exactly 177 students, the Class of 2024 is the largest freshman class the College has welcomed in four years.

Orscheln said relaxing the testing requirement was not the only reason the freshman population increased this semester.

"We devised a careful plan to ensure those numbers increased," Orscheln said. "Basically, we overhauled the engine of an already functional machine to make it run even more smoothly."

The college found traditional direct mailings dropped a few years ago to save costs were actually vital, because parents see this material, whereas digital marketing often goes directly and exclusively to prospective students.

"Our goal is to reach students and parents where they are, and we must make sure we are communicating through every channel possible," Orschelm said.

Westminster interim president/chief transformational officer Donald Lofe also spoke highly of direct mailing during a recent talk delivered to the Fulton Rotary Club.

"What the research shows is parents, children want to get a piece of paper," Lofe said. "They want to see a glossy brochure. We saved money but probably hurt ourselves in the end. We restarted that this year."

In addition to a few changes in marketing techniques, Orscheln said freshman enrollment is up because of a strong team of admissions counselors in dedicated territories who are skilled in listening to prospective students.

"They really are an enthusiastic, great group of people with a lot of energy," Orscheln said, adding his department recently doubled the number of admissions counselors in the St. Louis area.

Oddly enough, the COVID-19 pandemic did not negatively affect enrollment numbers, as some at Westminster feared.

"We were trying to continue to build enrollment through the pandemic and were pleasantly surprised with the numbers we ended up with," Orscheln said.

When prospective students could not visit campus this spring, Enrollment Services reached out through chatbots and other texting and video platforms. The college also launched a virtual tour feature on its website, Wesminster spokesperson Sarah Backer said.

All Westminster departments implemented social distancing and sanitation efforts in order to make college life work during this unprecedented time in history. As a result, Orscheln said, the overall environment feels even more family-like, which Orschelm believes prospective students picked up on the minute they set foot on campus.

"Everyone at Westminster is working together as a team. We all feel good about what we're doing, and that can be felt by others who come in from the outside," Orscheln said. "That's not something we can fake, and our numbers show it."

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