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Episode #20
Filling Seats Podcast | September 27, 2022

Increasing enrollment and retention at a small public college

In this episode:

You’ll hear from Jay Collier who is the Director of College Relations at Wayne State College, a small public college in northeast Nebraska.

You'll hear him discuss:

  • How Wayne State has increased enrollment and retention through a culture of supporting students
  • Why digital is their most effective marketing channel
  • How they were able to increase their enrollment marketing budget to achieve necessary targets
Jay Collier

Jay Collier

Director of College Relations

Podcast Inst Logos-20

Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Host: You're listening to filling seats, the state of enrollment, marketing, and higher ed. Hosted by StudentBridge. In this podcast. You'll learn, what's working to grow shape and sustain enrollment. At colleges and universities directly for marketers thought leaders and ed tech innovators, because anyone can design a brochure, but not anyone can fill seats.

[00:00:30] Host: Welcome to episode 20 of filling seats. In this episode, you'll hear from Jay Collier, who is the director of college relations at Wayne state college, a small public college in Northeast, Nebraska. You'll hear him discuss how Wayne state has increased enrollment and retention through a culture of supporting students.

[00:00:50] Host: Why digital is their most effective marketing channel. And how they were able to increase their enrollment marketing budget to achieve necessary targets let's meet Jayout of high school, I was in the military, for a while, and then I left the military and worked for a while and then went to school at, Colorado state. Got a couple of degrees there in, history.

[00:01:17] Jay Collier: European early modern Europe, specifically, and then went out to California for a PhD program. completed all the coursework. my wife got ill. I needed to get a job. So I ended up in journalism, crazy thing. and then I worked for a, oh, about a hundred thousand daily, circulation, newspaper, and then was recruited by the Los Angeles times to work for their community news, division.

[00:01:47] Jay Collier: So worked for them for. Some pretty eventful years. the contested election, nine 11, lots of crazy things happened in my,time in journalism mm-hmm left to go to the dark side as they called it, to go into public relations, with a small private college in Southern California, pier college, and, had a mentor there who.

[00:02:13] Jay Collier: Convinced me. I was where I needed to be, and learned a lot from her about marketing and public relations and those sorts of things, and worked there for a few years. And then. Oh, my wife and I had three small kids and we're like, oh, let's see if we can find a quieter place than Los Angeles to raise our kids.

[00:02:35] Jay Collier: So we ended up here in a town of about 5,000 people in Nebraska, at Wayne state college. And I've been here for 16 years now.

[00:02:45] Host: Wow. You've had quite an interesting journey

[00:02:49] Jay Collier: I have. And you know, I'd say that the one thing that served me well through it all has been a great. Liberal arts education, from Colorado state.

[00:02:59] Jay Collier: And, I graduated with, a lot of hard skills around writing and editing and those sorts of things. And it has, as I said, it has served me quite well in my career.

[00:03:10] So tell me a little bit about your current role and then also, how would you describe Wayne state

[00:03:16] Jay Collier: college? here, I'm the director of college relations.

[00:03:19] Jay Collier: So I oversee, communications and marketing, marketing communications for the admissions office. I joke that if it has a Wayne state college logo on it, my office probably had something to do with it. and so I have a great staff of graphic designers and web people and photographer, slash videographer.

[00:03:39] who do great work, for the college. I work in conjunction with president staff to, execute a strategic marketing plan each year. that's integrated across campus with our strategic enrollment plan and our overall strategic plan. have a lot of support, for what I do. Wayne state itself.

[00:03:58] Jay Collier: We're a small public, regional college open access, open enrollment. So more than 50% of our students are first generation low income students. And I was a first generation student myself. the mission of the college aligns with my personal mission,and my personal beliefs about the value of higher education.

[00:04:20] I tell people all the time, Hey, I'm market and I sell education and I go home and I sleep well at night because of that, it doesn't have side effects. it, doesn't depreciate when you drive it off the lot, like a new car, it has lasting value and it changes people's lives and changes.

[00:04:38] Jay Collier: Their family heck even changes their whole family tree. We are deeply committed, to making sure that everyone has a chance, for higher education. And then, we have, about a 75% retention rate, which is wow. Crazy high. For an open enrollment institution. a lot of great people work here that believe in what we do and that believe in our students.

[00:05:02] and it's absolutely fantastic place to work.

[00:05:05] Host: . And I'm looking at your graduation rate, it's on par with some. Well known for your institutions.

[00:05:11] Jay Collier: We like to say that Harvard is the Wayne state of the east coast, I love that. No offense to Harvard.

[00:05:17] Jay Collier: It's a very fine school. I actually went there for a week long, crisis communication. workshop,about, probably about eight or nine years ago.

[00:05:24] Host: what is your relationship like with the enrollment folks and the admissions

[00:05:30] Jay Collier: office? hand in hand? we do all of their publications, so it's a family of about, oh, I think in total.

[00:05:39] Jay Collier: When you count all the department brochures and everything else that we do for them, probably a family of about 50 publications that we just actually are finishing up updating for the new, recruiting year. so we do all of that for them. We do, support them throughout the year. I do, oversee the , creation, production, everything, on.

[00:06:02] Jay Collier: All of the television and radio and digital advertising that's used, to drive recruitment and enrollment and. yeah, we work really closely with them. they use slate. we, partner with a local printer and have everything sitting at the digital files for all the com flow for admissions , sitting with the printer and.

[00:06:23] Jay Collier: Then we use slate and once a student reaches a certain benchmark within slate or whatever, that triggers the next publication, the next point of contact, between, Wayne state and a prospective student.

[00:06:35] Host: So you're doing a lot of digital printing I'm

[00:06:38] Jay Collier: assuming. Yep. Yep. A lot of digital printing, digital press, everything is digital these days and it all sits there. Ready to go and prints on demand. As a student moves through our com flow from. Either the cold, inquiry pieces that we send, like any college, we buy names anywhere from 30 to 50,000 names at the start of a recruitment cycle.

[00:07:01] Jay Collier: And then we do some initial blast out of those. And then, once a student has applied and been admitted, then that triggers the second com flow, which is, those pieces that are geared toward, yield.

[00:07:15] Host: Which channels would you say are most effective?

[00:07:18] Jay Collier: Oh, boy. That I would say, I'd say out of everything we do probably digital is the most effective digital advertising. So we do a lot of,search terms, keywords, behavioral, demographics, you name it. . We have a really defined digital campaign. we do television and radio as well.

[00:07:39] Jay Collier: We don't, we realize we're also talking to parents and grandparents and teachers and, a variety of audiences, but I would think. Probably the most effective and the biggest bang for the buck that we get would probably come out of the digital side because, we can give them our, the names and we can do the addressable stuff so that we're matching up addresses for those people who subscribe to a variety of streaming TV services and pumping our ads right into tuby or Pluto or any number of these, the OTT platforms or whatever.

[00:08:12] Jay Collier: So we, we do a lot of that. are you managing those digital ads in house or do you have an agency that helps you out? Because a lot of schools are petrified, to even begin that because there's just not that expertise on staff.

[00:08:29] So I work closely with an agency to, I do all the defining and everything like that.

[00:08:35] Jay Collier: And then they basically do the placement for me so that I don't have to, run around and track down,the different digital providers and all of that. Plus they have a really cool, analytics platform, associated with that. it saves me a lot of trouble from having to build an analytics platform.

[00:08:51] So the agency can give me, really granular look at how things are going on a day to day, week to week, month to month basis.

[00:08:59] Host: . In terms of budget, I'm not gonna ask you to give a number, buta lot of schools. if that's not in the budget, they have to either ask for money or sacrifice something else.

[00:09:11] Host: So I'm curious, digital ads, was that something that kind of started small and then over time became a larger portion of the budget how did that shake out?

[00:09:23] we knew digital was where we needed to be,to reach prospective students. So it's always been a large part of what we do.

[00:09:31] we had suffered, until about seven years ago. we had the same budget for marketing for about 10 years. And. It wasn't working for us. it, enrollment was starting to lag a little bit. we were falling behind some competitors. so we, had a new president come on board. And one of the first things that she asked me was, what would it take for us to be.

[00:09:56] Jay Collier: In all of the places that I think we should be, for at least nine months out of the year. So September through may . And so I wrote a figure down after doing a little research over a couple days, and then she slid it back across the desk and said, that'll be your new budget. and that's where we've been ever since.

[00:10:15] Jay Collier: So it's been really. Super to have, not just the president, but the people on president staff. So the vice presidents and the deans to have their support and to have them see the importance of having the right budget, to do things the right way, because. it's all about frequency and reach, and if you're doing it halfway, you are not gonna get the results you're looking for.

[00:10:39] Host: What are some recent wins or successes that y'all have seen?

[00:10:43] we've grown, our enrollment has grown about 24, 20 5% in the last six years. so that's just a major win for us. with the enrollment growth comes obviously, increased access to resources that we've been able to use to, do everything from, facility upgrades on campus to, hiring more staff, a variety of things.

[00:11:06] Jay Collier: . that's been a huge win for us. yeah, I would say that the enrollment growth, for sure.

[00:11:11] Host: . What are some things that y'all struggle with in terms of marketing

[00:11:15] Jay Collier: having enough people to do everything we wanna do? because there's the dual,the, our office is responsible for marketing and communications.

[00:11:23] Jay Collier: Right? there's the earned media side and there's the paid media side. I wish I had more staff and more time to do more on the earned side. more and, news coverage and that sort of thing. we suffer from being a small town way. From distantly removed from the two large cities in the state.

[00:11:43] Jay Collier: So penetrating that the, media market at times in Omaha and Lincoln, where the influencers are at, has been a challenge but for the most part, we're looking at another year of growth, this year for this fall. but it seems to be stabilizing and we've reached, I think what, well, we're already outperforming market share.

[00:12:04] Jay Collier: I've looked at that historically over time. And, but I think that the, where we're at is the new normal. And so we're just settling into. What that looks like to sustain, the numbers that we're at. and, moving forward, what does the. What's the new normal for us, right?

[00:12:20] Host: Earlier, when you were talking about, retention rates and graduation rates, has that gone hand in hand with the enrollment growth or has that preceded the enrollment

[00:12:31] Jay Collier: growth? it's gone hand in hand. Iwe've always had strong, retention and I think that's, I don't think I know that's a product.

[00:12:39] the culture on campus is one of student first, we're not an R one, research university or anything like that. We are a teaching college. And so across campus, there's a commitment, a deep commitment to actually. Ensuring that the students that we asked to step outside of their comfort zone to take a chance on college, to take a chance on seeing a new path forward for themselves, that we wanna make sure once we've brought them here, that we're here for them to help them succeed.

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[00:14:49] Host: Learn

[00:14:54] when you think about other institutions and your competitors, what are some things that you think that they're doing a great job with?

[00:15:03] higher ed. Over time. It's been interesting to see the changes. I've been in higher ed now for about 20 years and to see how marketing has changed to see how personal everything can be.

[00:15:16] Jay Collier: And I think if there's probably one thing, competitors that I see them doing a great job with that maybe we could start to do a better job with that would probably be a level of personalization. we do personalize pieces obviously through the, marketing communications for the admissions office in the recruitment process.

[00:15:36] Jay Collier: But. A deeper personalization. So for instance, I know that I've seen some of the colleges here, some of the competitors, if, when a student visits your website, the next time they come back, it recognizes them. It remembers them and it tailors. Content for them, curated content on the website so that they get a unique experience.

[00:15:58] Jay Collier: . And so I think we could probably do a better job with that. I know that student bridge has been an invaluable tool for us. in terms of. What our competitors are doing. they, we watched them leverage video content over time and we didn't have those abilities in house. And then, four or five years ago, when we hooked up with student bridge and built out this platform that allows us to put some really good solid.

[00:16:24] Jay Collier: Video testimonials in front of prospective students that are their peers that are current students here talking about their experiences and talking about the hands on learning opportunities and some of the other things that are the, really the hallmark of O Wayne state education. That's been really good for us.

[00:16:41] and again, that's something, I see our competitors, some of our competitors doing a really good job.

[00:16:48] Host: . How do you push traffic to your. Virtual campus experience.

[00:16:52] all of my marketing actually pushes to that portal. , the digital ads, if you click on one of those, it takes you to, our platform, the Explorer, Wayne state

[00:17:03] Jay Collier: Platform. And then our television and radio all in with, learn and then we do several pushes, about the platform through postcards and some other information that we, and emails that we utilize through slate in the communication process each year in the recruitment cycle.

[00:17:24] it's our main landing page. Like we rely on. For students to land and learn about us, more than our main website. .

[00:17:31] Host: What types of videos do you see students interacting with the most?

[00:17:36] Jay Collier: , we did a series of new videos last year. they were, young alumni spotlights.

[00:17:42] Jay Collier: So these were, graduates who were either. Professional school are working as teachers or in a clinical lab setting or whatever. And those really got a lot of traffic and with perspective students, they want to know that your graduates are gonna be successful, but they also need to see themselves in those people.

[00:18:04] Jay Collier: So we rely on people who had just graduated. Yes. Rather than someone who'd been a banker for 20 years and they're like, oh my God, I can't. Imagine what I'm gonna have for breakfast next week, much less see myself that far down the road. So keep it fresh, keep it young, keep it relevant. with them there.

[00:18:23] Host: thinking about other schools, what are some things that you think that they could be doing better?

[00:18:27] huh. What could they be doing better?

[00:18:29] Jay Collier: I don't know. I don't, tend to look critically at what others, whether it's our competitors or higher ed in general, are doing, I do think it's, it is about finding the right student, for your institution. as much as we try to be all things to all people, we really can. so I think it's really important to be aware of the kinds of marketing messages.

[00:18:52] you're using the kind of promises that you're making your overall brand promise and making sure that the students you're going after are the kinds of students. You're going to be able to yield at the end of the, at the end of the recruitment cycle to bring them. For enrollment in the fall.

[00:19:09] Jay Collier: And I think that's one of the reasons too, that over time we've been able to maintain such a high, retention rate. And that is we're constantly, evaluating, are we recruiting the right kids? Are we, telling them the right things or we providing them with the right resources? so I would think that's probably if there was one critique I would have of, Of what I know locally from our competitors.

[00:19:35] Jay Collier: And that tends to be, they cast a really wide net and spend time probably recruiting students who were never going to be their students. or convincing students to come there who probably shouldn't have been there in the first place.

[00:19:48] Host: What do you see for the future of higher ed marketing?

[00:19:52] Jay Collier: Wow, boy, if I could answer that in a crazy cool way, I think I'd jump ship and become a consultant to make a ton of money, to be able to forecast, the future of higher ed marketing. I think one of the things that we've seen and one of the, that things, I think that. We've all learned over the past two and a half years is how do we talk about in the midst of the things that we talk about in marketing to students?

[00:20:18] Jay Collier: How do we talk about ways that we're here to support them? because I think that's one of the. One of the outgrowths of the pandemic, And the stresses that people were under and, whether that's, mental stress, psychological stress, physical stress, what have you so being more cognizant of the story of who we are.

[00:20:38] Jay Collier: And why that matters and what we can do in terms of working with a student on their educational journey, but also letting 'em know in the midst of this, we're also here for you. We're here to help you develop as a whole person. We're here to provide you with the support resources you may need when things get stressful or.

[00:20:57] when you, maybe you have financial issues that are impeding your ability to get your classwork done. Any of those things, just explaining how we are more than just,a brick building where you come and sit in class, we're actually an organization that cares about your success. And I think articulating.

[00:21:16] Jay Collier: And making that part of the overall marketing message, I think is really important for the future of higher ed. And I think the other challenge for us in the future of higher ed is actually getting back to widespread acceptance of the value of higher education.

[00:21:32] you can't read the media or watch it these days without them having a story about. college isn't cool anymore, or college isn't seen as valuable anymore. And those sorts of things. And I think that was really prevalent over the past year or so when there were just so many people who were so hungry for employees, that they were paying people, bonuses, and bringing them to work, whether they had a degree or not.

[00:21:57] because they so desperately needed people. And now that the economy is slowing down, I think people are gonna see, oh, it's the pendulum's gonna swing again. And everyone's gonna say, I really do need that degree in order to be competitive in the marketplace. Yeah. So I think that's the other side of the coin of one, the one hand, we need to be super cognizant of the way that we position ourselves is in supporting students and supporting their passion and all of those other things, while at the same time being champions of higher education itself and that it does have a value, outside of, rhetoric around debt and all of these other things.

[00:22:36] Jay Collier: IWe're super proud of what we do in terms of how we leverage scholarships and how we leverage financial aid. 35% of our students last year graduated with zero student loan debt . And of those students who graduated with debt, the, it was about on, at average, about $18,000. Wow. So it really is this huge value proposition right now.

[00:23:02] Jay Collier: Of course we labor under, oh, you're the small college in a cornfield. and there's nothing to do and blah, blah, blah. Yes, you're right. we are a college in a cornfield and there is a, you're not gonna have a big music festival to go to, or some of those other things like you might have in Omaha Lincoln.

[00:23:19] Jay Collier: But you're also not gonna graduate with $70,000 worth of debt, and a host of other issues. yeah, I think it is that the future of higher ed is repositioning ourselves is valuable and, moving past what really makes us awesome is, the lazy river and the climbing wall we have and more, what really makes us awesome is the people we have on staff who are here to make sure that you're healthy.

[00:23:42] Whatever that looks like for you as a person while you pursue this degree and invest in yourself, for the future. .

[00:23:51] Host: What is an app or marketing tool that you could not live without?

[00:23:55] we do love the student bridge platform and it is a great tool, for us and, to be able to leverage that and have the functionality there and be able to shoot like next week, I'm shooting a whole bunch of new videos for the site and it'll be as easy as, once those videos are done.

[00:24:14] I'll work with my rep and she'll get 'em placed on our site and boom, we have nice fresh content to go along with the other videos that we have in our catalog there. And, so that's a really great tool for us. .

[00:24:26] Host: And if you could go back five to 10 years and give yourself advice, what would it be?

[00:24:30] On the career advice side, I would probably find a way.

[00:24:34] Jay Collier: To work in some data analytics, studies like maybe pursue a certificate or, maybe even another master's degree, around analytics because every day we have more and more data at our fingertips. but it can be difficult to Wade through it and find meaningful. Reach meaningful conclusions based on that data.

[00:24:55] Jay Collier: So I think from a career standpoint, there we are, from a life standpoint, it would be take, take time off so that I don't lose my accrual every year. and have more fun.


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