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Episode #35
Filling Seats Podcast | August 1, 2023

Communicating value and outcomes

In this episode:

You’ll hear from Alyson Leas who is the Director of Admissions at University of Jamestown.

You'll hear:

  • The importance of being present and showcasing value
  • Their unique approach to communicating outcomes that specifically appeals to parents
  • How UJ markets to stealth students and enables them to easily find what they’re looking for
  • Why video is an essential part of their strategy
Alyson Leas

Alyson Leas

Director of Admissions



Episode Transcript

[00:00:00] Host: You're listening to Filling Seats: The State of Enrollment Marketing in 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 from fellow enrollment marketers, thought leaders, and ed tech innovators.

[00:00:23] Host: Listen in for proven strategies to fill seats this cycle and beyond.

[00:00:33] Host: Welcome to episode 35 of filling seats. In this episode, you'll hear from Alyson Leas,

[00:00:39] Host: who was the director of admissions at university of Jamestown. a private Christian liberal arts university in Jamestown, North Dakota. You'll hear the importance of being present and showcasing value. They're unique approach to communicating outcomes. That specifically appeals to parents.

[00:00:57] Host: How UJ markets to stealth students. And enables them to easily find what they're looking for.

[00:01:03] Host: And why video is an essential part of their strategy. You'll also hear Alyson mentioned a Jimmy throughout the interview, the Jimmy's or the mascot of university of Jamestown. And you'll hear this explained more at the end. Let's meet Al

[00:01:17] Alyson Leas: like a lot of admissions professionals, I came to this profession accidentally. I actually have my master's degree in American history and wanted to work in museums. The museum gigs fell through when there was a position open at University of Jamestown, my alma mater, for an admissions counselor.

[00:01:36] Alyson Leas: And I thought, Oh yeah, I'll give them six months, do that gig for a little bit, be a good alum and move on. and that was in 2015. So we see how that worked out. I rose up the ranks. I was an admissions counselor, rose to senior admissions counselor, and took over as director of admissions here in March of 2019 or 2020.

[00:02:00] Alyson Leas: It all blurs together as most people's 19s and 20s do. I've been director at UJ ever since. I did for six months serve as director of admissions at the University of Minnesota Crookston, . so I did that for six months in 2022, but ultimately made the move to come back here to University of Jamestown.

[00:02:21] Host: Tell me a little bit more about your current role and how you would describe your institution.

[00:02:26] Alyson Leas: Admissions as a whole at University of Jamestown does a lot. when our counselors and myself, when we talk to our colleagues from other schools, they go, You guys do that, we have an office for that. but it really allows us to be that concierge for students and be their one stop shop.

[00:02:46] Alyson Leas: the typical task list of Our team is to be out on the road recruiting. We do a lot of travel. We still believe in one on one high school visits as much as we can. We discuss financial aid with the students. We have those gap conversations once they have their FAFSA award letter and their institutional award letter.

[00:03:07] Alyson Leas: Bills come out next week and my team is so excited. As I roll my eyes, but we're the ones that get to go through that with students and make it a little more manageable. we also help them through the housing process, making sure that they're getting those items in, collecting some of their documents that are needed, for move in.

[00:03:26] Alyson Leas: we prefer to be the ones having the financial aid conversations, having the residence life conversations. which means we have to know a lot about everything and have an arsenal of marketing on everything as well. if a student needs it to become a Jimmy, it's going through admissions and they're working with, their same counselor. From start to finish,

[00:03:50] Alyson Leas: UJ is a private school, four year liberal arts degrees. We are a Christian faith based school as well.

[00:03:58] Alyson Leas: We have 23 varsity athletic programs, so we are a very highly athletic campus with performing arts and nursing and lots of,things thrown in.

[00:04:10] Alyson Leas: We are located in Jamestown, North Dakota, which is in South Central North Dakota, right between Fargo and Bismarck. We have a current enrollment of 1, 256 students, which is actually an all time high.

[00:04:24] Host: What are some of the challenges that you face in recruiting students?

[00:04:28] Alyson Leas: There's always been challenges recruiting to a private liberal arts school in North Dakota. COVID has made it even more so,this generation and going forward are hyper aware of costs and outcomes. And, it's really been a two year school's time to shine. So when I mentioned that my counselors are doing, those gap conversations and outcome conversations, it's really about.

[00:04:54] Alyson Leas: Know there is still value in a four year degree and that is something that we push a lot is our Scholarships, but then also the value of why do you want to spend four years in college? What good does it do to take leadership classes and ethics classes and be able to communicate? we are really trying to get those testimonials from employers of the differences between Somebody who comes with a liberal arts education and somebody who doesn't, we are the most expensive price tag in North Dakota in terms of schools.

[00:05:31] Alyson Leas: However, when we look at average cost after aid, we're suddenly right in the middle of the pack. So that's a lot of front loading on our part to make sure that students aren't turning themselves away at the door, but are continuing on. to learn about their scholarship opportunities.

[00:05:50] Host: what are your current enrollment goals? Are you looking to grow, to shape, to maintain?

[00:05:56] Alyson Leas: We are looking to grow. We are hoping for this coming year to bring in 300 freshmen and 60 transfer students. So a total of 360 new students. the goal for this year was 330. we're looking to increase bit by bit. I like to tell my team that it is our job. to make the housing office shake in their boots, and hopefully we, we get to do that.

[00:06:21] Alyson Leas: But UJ is building and growing and it's a really exciting time. And I think 360 is in our grasp, but it's going to take some work.

[00:06:30] Host: What are your top priorities to get to that 360?

[00:06:34] Alyson Leas: Presence, just being on the top of mind of students, with us being smaller, not a lot of students grow up thinking that they're going to come to UJ. That's why we still very much focus on travel and focus to getting to those small towns of hey, we're here and we're here for you.

[00:06:52] Alyson Leas: So really just that presence and brand awareness and Especially, like I said getting that scholarship awareness out there so that students aren't disqualifying us

[00:07:02] Alyson Leas: before we've even had a chance. Visibility, visibility, visibility.

[00:07:08] Host: what's kind of your geographic footprint?

[00:07:10] Alyson Leas: Overall, we focus on North Dakota, Minnesota, and South Dakota in terms of recruitment. However, because of our wide athletic footprint, in the last few years, our top five recruited states have included California, Arizona, and Nevada. every year we have some from Alaska, some from Hawaii. The weather is a bit more of a shock for a few of those students.

[00:07:34] Alyson Leas: But, roughly 25% of an incoming class is North Dakota, 25% is Minnesota. But then truly, the other 50% is scattered. I believe our last count was 38 states. So, relatively scattered considering we're, a small town in the middle of North Dakota.

[00:07:55] Alyson Leas: You mentioned presence and staying top of mind as a top priority to achieve your enrollment goals. And then, of course, you said traveling. Are there any other more enrollment marketing tactics that y'all are trying to lean into as well? For a lot of years, we've been very traditional,here's our postcards, here's our letters, here's our billboards, but we have really tried to get into,more of that geo fencing marketing. We're on Snapchat, we're on Instagram, we are on TikTok, trying to meet students where they are.

[00:08:31] Alyson Leas: I believe the challenge really is to grasp that students are doing their research. Without you, so you need to find places to be, and have information at the ready and not think that you're the one or that we're the ones that get to dictate how students learn about us,in the movie, The Christmas Story, when Ralphie sneaks the red rider, advertisement into his mom's magazine.

[00:08:58] Alyson Leas: That's a lot like admissions recruiting. We just have to find what students are looking at and be there.

[00:09:05] Host: I'm assuming then that you would be prioritizing organic social as well as your website and video content. Is that accurate?

[00:09:14] Alyson Leas: Very accurate. We, just did a website reboot, last year. It was very needed and we're happy with the results. , something that we've been able to, really jump off with, with StudentBridge is having videos. When we partnered two years ago, they were the first videos we had in admissions that weren't shot on a counselor's iPhone, right?

[00:09:40] Alyson Leas: there's QR codes all over our conflow look at this video, look at that. we embedded the videos throughout the website. they'll watch a video, but they don't want to listen to me. kind of swallow your pride and put the videos out there.

[00:09:55] Alyson Leas: It was really out of a necessity both for manpower and Ability that sounds terrible, but at the time we just we had no sort of videographer or campus photographer. we didn't have the resources, or the staffing to make anything like that happen and also just the vision,

[00:10:14] Alyson Leas: the joke in enrollment is always, be careful when you have an idea because then it's going to become your job. we wanted these videos, but I'm not a script writer, I don't know what the video should look like. So we just knew that it was time to tap into a professional, because we had a few swings and misses and , it's an investment that's needed.

[00:10:38] Host: We hear that from a lot of enrollment folks that we work with. You know, , we know that there's a need for video we know that students are coming to our website and secret shopping. But. We need your help to make that happen because, an admissions counselor doesn't necessarily always have the skill set to know how to make this really captivating video that's going to grab a prospective student's attention.

[00:11:01] Alyson Leas: We have our videos everywhere we can possibly think to put them. we have a link to them right on the top of our website's main page. So we are directing students there all of the time. We have a, automatic email communication flow that We try to sprinkle in specific videos, just so students don't get to the main landing page and get overwhelmed with the options.

[00:11:30] Alyson Leas: So we'll try to direct students there. Some of them are just fun, hey, here's a day in the life of a student. Others are, this is a housing email, here's the housing video. we do them in, Our paper conflow as well. One of my favorite postcards is, on the front, it was just flat orange and said, this is a college postcard.

[00:11:54] Host: Then you flip to the back and there was a big QR code and it said, these are videos about our college and it was to our student bridge landing page. No branding. It didn't say University of Jamestown except on the kind of cutting to the chase of, we know you want the videos. do you know? What the success rate of that was?

[00:12:15] Alyson Leas: did see a jump. in our monthly meeting Whoa, something must have gone out because there was a spike. It did drive students and really, my hope was with them going through the mail. I was like, hey, maybe I'll get the mailman interested, because it's just right out there.

[00:12:31] Alyson Leas: It's a postcard.

[00:12:32] Alyson Leas: this fall, we're going to have, the QR code to our student bridge landing page right there. dedicated one of our pop up banners to it. So hopefully that drives, some things as well. when I was at Crookston, before the National College Fair, we went to Vistaprint, just made up little business cards.

[00:12:52] Alyson Leas: so if a student was just trying to do, the famous fly by, not grab info, nothing, If there was one thing they could grab, they could at least grab that.

[00:13:02] Host: Do you think that students almost expect that print to digital experience when they're interacting with you in person?

[00:13:12] Alyson Leas: I think it's becoming more and more common. UC students that you don't even have to. Explain, Oh, and if you scan here, it'll take you to our website and this, this, they just walk up and do it. But I do think it's a way to try to direct them to the right place or a place that you would prefer they land. Because we know that if. They do have an interest after meeting with you, chatting with you at a college fair, or at a high school visit. They're going to hop online and research. So again, that goes back to, okay, now they're researching without me there!

[00:13:53] Alyson Leas: they're stealth and they're gonna see what they're gonna see. so at least them having a QR code, there's a chance that when they go home and... Say, I want to learn more. I'm gonna check them out online. There's a chance they'll at least Go to the QR code we provided as opposed to just like an open end Google.

[00:14:14] Host: what would you say to someone who was considering investing in video,

[00:14:19] Alyson Leas: just do it. Rip the band aid off. You need it. You're going to fall further and further behind if you don't have it and it was actually when, the film crew came to campus. I was two months in as director. So it was my first, big kid, uh oh moment.

[00:14:38] Alyson Leas: And I was so worried. I was, like, here late nights, the week leading up to it, just thinking, I have to plan all of this stuff. They got here and we chatted and stuff just happened, so it was just the value of being like, this is what they do, and this is what they understand. Because I think in the admissions and enrollment world, we all share those frustrations of marketing doesn't understand what admissions wants.

[00:15:08] Alyson Leas: they understand what the alumni wants or what they want. So just knowing that, wow, this crew knows the video and marketing side of things, but this crew knows the admissions we're working with 17 year old side of things. It was just so worth it to have professionals that had that background and training Forget the price tag. Think about your peace of mind and your ease and do it.

[00:15:39] Host: I think a trend that we're seeing is. pre COVID people kind of saw virtual tours and virtual experiences as a nice to have Oh, we have one, but it's for students who can't visit, like everyone who's serious visits, that was kind of the mentality.

[00:15:55] Host: And then of course, during COVID, it was this mad dash of everybody's got to get one. And we saw, in some cases these. DI wide or band aid solutions. And then now, a lot of schools are really seeing the value and investing in a very well done high converting virtual tour, virtual experience, and they're almost, reinvesting in that.

[00:16:19] Alyson Leas: Our solution when COVID first came about was sending our Jimmy Ambassadors around campus with iPads and like a McDonald's drive thru headset. The ambassadors hated us. the virtual visitors were like sick from the motion sickness. iPads got dropped because they couldn't balance them and unlock doors at the same time.

[00:16:41] Alyson Leas: This is terrible, it's tacky, it's not doing anyone justice. so then we started looking at our campus map and what to do with that. And... It comes out that our campus map that we had printed places was based on a painting. It was a painted map of campus. So when we're doing these buildings and these expansions, they had to try to match the style of painting to this map.

[00:17:12] Alyson Leas: So you couldn't do anything with it. So that's when we bit the bullet and we're like, yeah, we are adding the interactive campus map because it all matches. It's interactive. It's, up to date. It's something that, again, we can use to walk through when we're on a zoom with a student that's visiting virtually, we pull it up.

[00:17:37] Alyson Leas: But again, it's something that we trust. is helpful to students when they're getting there without us.

[00:17:45] Host: and it's catered specifically to perspective students. A lot of schools have virtual maps that are for any campus population, donors, alumni, current students. So there's a lot of information that kind of muddies up what perspective students actually want to see.

[00:18:02] Alyson Leas: Yeah, and I would say if anybody's thinking about an interactive map, to prepare for that sort of battle, I still get it. we've had our interactive map live for I think about a year and a half and every so often I still get from another department. hey, this place isn't on there.

[00:18:20] Alyson Leas: Well, yeah, prospective students don't need to know where the maintenance plant is. so I would just, caution offices to be prepared for that, but remember that it is a recruiting tool.

[00:18:33] Host: it's almost, I think the conversation that a lot of schools were having five to 10 years ago with their main EDU site, when, they used to be catered very equally to all of the constituencies out of university, , news and media and, Information for faculty and then everyone realized, Oh, our homepage is being used primarily by perspective students.

[00:18:58] Host: So we need to cater to them instead.

[00:19:01] Alyson Leas: Yes, it's a, battle that we've, I think, just recently won with our new website, and it's, like I said, everything we have out there needs to be something that can appeal to a student that's on the college hunt, and that doesn't look like the traditional things that a college often wants to look like, but It's just so important to be out there and to be a little bit ahead of the curve.

[00:19:30] Host: . what do you think are the top pain points that enrollment teams are facing right now? If

[00:19:35] Alyson Leas: Like we talked about earlier, the value of college and the trust. I forget, but there was something like a 20 point percentage drop in trust of colleges. I think it was like of any institutions, but It's something that I've heard more than ever, even in just this past year where we think we're like finally shaking off COVID and okay, we're done hearing that as a reason, but it definitely did some.

[00:20:05] Alyson Leas: Damage to how people see higher ed And the value of a degree at all, much less a four year degree. That's really what we're grappling with is Still getting out there and saying no there is value to a four year degree There is value to making this big investment Because it is your future.

[00:20:29] Host: Are there any specific communication pieces that you're utilizing to showcase that value? Okay.

[00:20:35] Alyson Leas: I actually just started a project yesterday asking a few of the, departments that we want to help grow, so teacher education being one of them. I said, Hey, can we have some testimonials or what have we heard from area school districts that have hired some recent graduates and just compiling those, those answers.

[00:20:58] Alyson Leas: And one came back and it's definitely getting thrown on a postcard. It's, UJ graduates and anyone we hire from a liberal arts school are the most creative teachers. They're the first ones to troubleshoot and the first ones to take up extra duties in the school. Trying to focus on the Anywhere can get you your credentials.

[00:21:22] Alyson Leas: Any school,can teach you the technicalities of the job you're looking for, but it's really about developing as a person. So that's what we're trying to play on is this world needs some jimmies right now. this world needs those well rounded students who can do everything, not just focus in, sit at a desk, clock out.

[00:21:44] Host: I've heard, many schools talking about outcomes and taking it further and saying, not just, job placement rate, but job placement rate by program and doing young alumni testimonials. But I think it's a very interesting tactic to have testimonials from the employers of your students.

[00:22:04] Host: Hi.

[00:22:04] Alyson Leas: Yes, and it's worked great. Another, one for us that, that does wonders is nursing. we have a wonderful nursing department, so we have been able to collect testimonials from employers, but also we get, messages from patients or families of patients and we love asking them if we can share. those, because those are very meaningful too, to hear from somebody who was cared for, by a UJ nurse, it's like, whew, wow.

[00:22:37] Alyson Leas: You clearly made an impact if they're, getting out of the hospital and contacting the college your nurse went to. So that's a big deal, and, students like to know that, and let's be real, mom and dad like to hear that too.

[00:22:52] Alyson Leas: . you get those. Grouchy, gruff farm dads that are looking at our list of Gen Eds and they're going, Billy wants to major in business. Why you got him in this and that? what good is this? So to hear from employers that, oh, there is a point to it.

[00:23:06] Alyson Leas: it does do a good, is really beneficial.

[00:23:10] Host: what marketing channels do y'all rely on the most? Silence.

[00:23:13] Alyson Leas: We're still pretty heavily, leaning on those traditional marketing channels of, email and text and snail mail, . But , just watching the trends, email is creeping back up into what students prefer. And I think when we're talking about marketing channels, especially on the social media side of things, It's easy for us to say, Facebook is dead.

[00:23:39] Alyson Leas: Everybody's grandma and mom are on Facebook. Okay. Well, who are students listening to? So as much as we like to be front and center on the Instagram and TikToks of the world to get to students, I think going forward, admissions offices need to be very aware of not neglecting those channels that older, generations, of influencers, be they parents or school counselors, we still need to pop up in front of them, as well.

[00:24:10] Host: , it's come up on a lot of episodes recently that for a while, there was the trend of, let's exclude the parents because it will make the students actually do the things that we want them to do. But it's recognizing that the parents are heavily influential in the decision.

[00:24:28] Host: And if you can win them over, potentially they can influence the student.

[00:24:32] Alyson Leas: yes, we've always had a parent conflow, we usually have a, Future Jimmy Parents on Facebook, but it is going to be so much more important and needs to be, really focused on. I think it was RNL put something out that said,78% of parents expected weekly communication to them.

[00:24:55] Alyson Leas: I don't know if I can do that,

[00:24:57] Host: Silence.

[00:24:57] Alyson Leas: to be quite honest. But, , it definitely tells you where a parent's mind is at. And then in that same study, I believe it said something like, only 13% of students said that their parents weren't looking at colleges with them. that's gotta tell us something.

[00:25:14] Alyson Leas: And that,. The parent influence is back and big.

[00:25:18] Alyson Leas: What is a recommendation that you have for institutions struggling to meet their enrollment goals? I always just recommend being ready with your pivot, and being flexible, and knowing that what totally knocked your goal over the top last year, might fall totally dead this year. And that's something that's hard to come by. it's hard to admit that, Whoa, this worked so well! And then the very next year, have to throw it out.

[00:25:52] Alyson Leas: But the minute we accept that, and we listen to what students are asking for, I think is the minute that we'll, start seeing some better results. And it's, sometimes, like I said, it's about swallowing pride, and being like, yeah, that was a great idea, but not for this generation. and trying things.

[00:26:14] Alyson Leas: But also... Enrollment and working with what this, generation, wants. It's sometimes almost in our minds, going backwards. the last three years, we thought email was dead. All gotta be text. I think because we all did that, and students started getting 50 college texts a day, now if you look at the data, email's back!

[00:26:38] Alyson Leas: And that's what students want. YouTube is still miles ahead in preference to TikTok, yes, we need to be mindful and be on the cutting edge, but Take a peek at what students are actually seeing, and it's oh. All right, sometimes we're circling back to something we did five years ago, and it's hard to think that works, because we talk so much about changing and keeping up with students and the changing technologies, and it's Actually, this works,

[00:27:11] Host: A lot of times people think Oh, well, I sent one email and it didn't increase my application numbers or deposit numbers or visit numbers. And so email doesn't work, but You need multiple emails.

[00:27:22] Alyson Leas: You need multiple, pieces of communication. A student needs to feel that they're seeing this message everywhere to actually take action. It's not one single thing that's going to move the needle. for sure, and some schools are going super early, I have talked with parents whose freshmen in high school are getting, items,we start off our junior blasts with a mailing piece, gets us in front of the entire household. doesn't go to spam, it's definitely a bill,but it's been very successful and something that we hear a lot of that, getting mail is what kicked off. In the student's mind, their search, because, as it's becoming more and more of an issue, sometimes we never know what email is getting to the actual inbox.

[00:28:15] Alyson Leas: so , having multiple channels to make sure that, somebody is eventually going to see ya.

[00:28:21] Alyson Leas: , what do you see for the future of higher ed marketing? And,I don't think any of us can, fairly say that we can see the future. I think we're going to see an increase even more than we already have in those lurker students. So colleges were really gonna have to be very good at having our marketing and our pieces and our presence speak for us.

[00:28:45] Alyson Leas: Almost giving up that control of we'll advertise this or we'll put this contact us out there and then we can explain it because we're so great at what we do. And I can't say how that will happen, but we're going to have to find marketing that helps us, speak when students don't want to be spoken to.

[00:29:09] Host: you mentioned your mascot, the Jimmy, a few times. Is there any story there or is it truly just a nickname for Jamestown?

[00:29:18] Alyson Leas: Sir Jimmy, was a knight who crusaded around the world on his mythical white horse and fought for the good of mankind. And that's very much what we expect of our students. So we are the Jimmys, of University of Jamestown.

[00:29:37] Host: This is the Filling Seats podcast, hosted by StudentBridge, where we help enrollment teams achieve more by fusing authentic storytelling with industry leading technology and personalized digital experiences.

[00:29:53] Host: If you're looking to attract more, amaze more, and achieve more, visit To connect with this episode's guest, check out the show notes. If you enjoyed this episode, leave a rating and review, and don't forget to subscribe! For more information about the podcast or to let us know you'd like to be a guest, visit

[00:30:15] Host: Thanks for listening!