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Embracing Our ‘Boutique’ Label: Interview With the VP for Enrollment Management

Michael HendricksThe fifth article in the continuing series, “Pride of Place”

In the Summer 2005 issue of CUA Magazine we inaugurated a series of articles called Pride of Place to better acquaint Catholic University alumni with the state of their alma mater. In this issue, we continue the series with an interview that CUA Magazine Editor in Chief Victor Nakas recently conducted with Michael Hendricks, vice president for enrollment management.

Nakas: The majority of readers of CUA Magazine are alumni of our institution. So my first question is this: Why should alums
be interested in what the person who is in charge of university enrollment has to say?

Hendricks: [Laughs] At the end of the day, most schools, including Catholic University, do not have the luxury of a multi-billion- dollar endowment to rely on for continued existence. We stay open because students enroll here. We exist for and because of the students. Hopefully, people care about that.

Nakas: Beyond that, what’s the value of our enrollment outlook to an alumnus or an alumna who graduated 10 or 20 years ago, assuming they don’t have any near-college-age children?

Hendricks: When you graduate from an institution, you want to know that your degree is going to be perceived as prestigious. If the enrollment profile changes and/or the university experiences significant enrollment declines, the perceived value of the CUA degree you earned can be diminished. Therefore, our priority is to continually improve both the composition of the student body and the market position of the institution. Alums should be interested in learning about the students we enroll today and how we educate them so that the alums continue to be proud of the education they received and proud of what The Catholic University of America represents now.

Nakas: After being at the helm of enrollment management for three years, what do you conclude about the perceived value of CUA?

Hendricks: I think Catholic University’s value-added is found in its location in Washington, D.C., its unique mission as the national university of the Catholic Church, and the intangibles that a private, faith-based education provides. As an institution, it is our responsibility to impart to our current students and alumni a sense of pride in the fact that their university is unique and provides a college experience that other institutions just cannot offer. In other words, we could be considered a “boutique” label, not a large generic educational enterprise. Students choose to attend CUA because of our differentiating factors, not the things that make us just like any other university. These are intangibles like the service orientation of our student body, the front-and-center display of our Catholic identity, and the values and activities that come with being Catholic. All these attributes are in addition to the strength and breadth of our academic programs. Of course, the flip side of this is that the value-added we’re promoting means that Catholic University isn’t for everybody, and we are very upfront about letting students know this. We want students who are comfortable here. It ultimately helps our retention rate and helps produce alumni who will be engaged after graduation.

Nakas: What measures have you implemented in your undergraduate enrollment efforts to reflect Catholic University’s uniqueness? And how do they mesh with the vision set forth by Catholic University’s president, Father David O’Connell?

Hendricks: Father O’Connell has set the vision for the institution moving forward, and our efforts reflect the goal he has articulated to increase the size of the undergraduate student body. Because of the university’s mission, the obvious starting point for our recruitment efforts is the subset of the U.S. population that consists of about 70 million Catholics. Within that group there are those who value a Catholic education and that is who we’re interested in. About 90 percent of our undergraduate population is Catholic. Our students are coming from both public schools and private Catholic schools, about a 50-50 split. Our recruiting targets a solid geographic region that begins in New England and comprises the entire northeast corridor going down to D.C. Beyond that, in areas we consider emerging markets, we recruit in pockets where Catholics from the Northeast have moved, like Florida; we also recruit in other areas with a large Catholic population, like Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles. But that’s a long way for students to come to D.C., so it’s not our traditional market. While we’re trying to build up these markets, we’re also going deeper into our traditional markets. By going deeper I mean that we’re identifying more prospective students who share the same characteristics of students currently enrolled at CUA and who we know will be successful here.

Nakas: How do you square this concentration on East Coast recruitment with the fact that we describe ourselves as the national university of the Catholic Church?

Hendricks: The demographic makeup of the United States varies from region to region. We’re the national university of the Catholic Church so we’re going to focus our recruitment efforts and enroll students from those areas where the greatest numbers of Roman Catholics live. As the demographics change and Catholics move in larger numbers to other parts of the country, our recruitment patterns will adjust accordingly. Also, it’s important to understand that there are only a handful of universities that truly enroll nationally; most enroll the majority of their students from a regional area.

Nakas: What other changes have you made to ways in which CUA recruits since you’ve arrived?

Hendricks: One of the key challenges for enrollment management is to shift our financial aid awards away from an emphasis on merit scholarships toward an emphasis on need-based financial aid. We want to be able to assist economically disadvantaged students who meet our admission standards to attend the university. It’s the Catholic thing to do and Father O’Connell believes it’s built into our mission. It’s also the right thing to do for the institution financially. When you try to win over prospective students who have little or no actual financial need with large scholarship offers, you end up enrolling students who are lukewarm about the institution rather than those who see CUA as their first-choice institution. In the long run, it’s not good for the students or the university. Instead our approach is to promote the quality and uniqueness of our educational experience. College is expensive, but people understand that price is associated with value and quality.

Nakas: Have we reached our goal of shifting aid to those who truly need it?

Hendricks: No, but we’re moving rapidly in that direction. In part, it’s a question of momentum. For universities like CUA that are enrollment driven, you’re either growing or you’re dying. Father O’Connell’s vision and subsequent directive to grow the undergraduate population gave us the focus we needed as an institution and an enrollment organization. We’ll continue to be in a growth mode while maintaining the academic quality of our student body. Another thing we need to pay attention to, that greatly affects how prospective students perceive our quality, is our facilities. I’m not downplaying the value of the degree itself — it’s always important and that’s where things like the national U.S. News & World Report rankings come into play. But for many people, campus facilities, particularly student-centered facilities, are the most tangible representation of quality.

Nakas: Regarding the
U.S. News rankings of best colleges and universities, the list that is produced is perceived to be influential with prospective students and their parents. Others consider it to be unfair. What is your opinion?

Hendricks: There are certainly flaws in the rankings, but one helpful thing they have done is to categorize colleges and universities. They have put them in “buckets” for prospective college students and their parents. Prior to the rankings, many people didn’t understand the differences that existed among schools. U.S. News has put liberal arts colleges in one bucket, comprehensive universities in a second, national universities in a third.

Nakas: CUA is in the bucket called national universities. According to U.S. News we’re in 120th position. What does that mean, being 120th?

Hendricks: The national doctoral university category is widely considered to be the most prestigious category, primarily because it includes the large, well-known schools and many of the most prestigious in the world. Our inclusion in this category is an anomaly — and quite an accomplishment, given the size of our student body. We have about 6,100 students, so to be ranked with schools of 20,000 or 30,000 students is extraordinary. The reason we’re in this category is that we offer a wide array of master’s and doctoral programs. Being there benefits us because we can say that Catholic University is able to provide students with the intellectual and academic resources usually found at larger research institutions. Yet we’re also small enough to ensure that the focus is on each individual student, and this helps our undergraduates build personal relationships with faculty and other members of the campus community. So we have the best of both worlds.

Nakas: How do we move up in the rankings?

Hendricks: A number of factors influence where universities are ranked: peer assessment, academic profile of entering students, faculty resources, and one category that I am sure our alumni are interested in — the percentage of alumni who contribute to their alma mater. CUA has an alumni participation rate of 12 percent. Other Catholic universities in the national doctoral category such as Georgetown, Boston College, Notre Dame, Fordham and Marquette score higher in this area than we do. U.S. News evaluates them — and us — not on how much their alumni donate but rather on what proportion of alumni give to the institution — and this
percentage is factored into the rankings. It also has an important indirect influence on the most heavily weighted factor in the rating system, peer assessment. University presidents, provosts and chief enrollment managers all receive surveys listing more than 200 universities in their peer group and are asked to rate each one on a scale of 1 to 5. I fill out the survey every year and I can say that it’s impossible to have deep knowledge of every institution’s programs. So if I’m uncertain about exactly where to rank a given institution, I’ll look at a factor like the rate of alumni giving. If it’s high, I’ll conclude that good things are happening there, their graduates are successful, and I’ll factor that into my peer assessment ranking. I don’t doubt that other people who are filling out the surveys do the same thing. So it would help CUA’s position in the rankings if those alumni who don’t give anything to CUA now would begin to contribute anything, even a few dollars if that’s all they can afford, every year.

Nakas: Besides helping to improve our U.S. News rankings, is there anything else our alumni can do to support your enrollment efforts?

Hendricks: Alumni can help us by identifying students who will be successful at CUA, who value the fact that we’re The Catholic University of America, who are comfortable in Washington, D.C., who are involved in service and are people that our alums would be proud to vouch for and to have as fellow alumni. They can participate in our alumni grant program by nominating prospective students for a $1,000 annually renewable grant, providing that the student is admitted to CUA. This program has enjoyed considerable success. Alums can find more information on the alumni grant program by going to the CUA Web site (http://alumni.cua.edu/association/grant.cfm). Some alumni — especially those in alumni chapters located along the Boston-to Washington corridor — actively help us identify CUA students, and that’s important.

Nakas: This year CUA has seen a record number of undergraduate applications, nearly 5,000. To what do you attribute this?

Hendricks: As I said before, we’ve gone deeper in our traditional markets and expanded our recruitment areas in order to build a larger applicant pool. We’re focusing on targeting the right prospective students, and the word about Catholic University is getting out there. That’s the good part. On the other hand, individual students are applying to more schools than ever before, sometimes 10 or 20, as compared to about five several years ago. So we’re competing with a larger number of institutions for their attention.

Nakas: With applications this year at historic levels, will this carry over into higher enrollments?

Hendricks: We are positioned well to continue our enrollment growth. The commitment has been made by the president and the Board of Trustees and now it’s up to us to work hard and find the best possible students for Catholic University. Last year we enrolled a record number of freshmen, 858, and we’re expecting around the same number or higher this year. This is a very positive sign for CUA because we’re growing our enrollment while at the same time moving our financial aid resources toward need-based financial aid and maintaining our academic standards. Most important is that we are being direct and open in making sure prospective students know that, at Catholic University, we have expectations of them just as they have expectations of us. We have expectations related to our academics, to our service orientation and to our mission. We’re telling them that if they’re looking for a generic secular university, don’t come here. The fact that we’re growing at the same time that we are explicitly differentiating ourselves tells me that what we’re doing sells, that people understand our uniqueness and value what we do. In the long run this can only make us better.

Nakas: Up to this point we’ve been focusing our discussion almost exclusively on undergrads. For my final question, I’d like to turn to graduate students. Father O’Connell said in an interview with CUA Magazine last year that his vision for Catholic University is one of continuity and change: continuity with the university’s founding mission but also strengthening and, as appropriate, changing our undergraduate and graduate programs to keep up with the times. How do we manage this on the graduate side?

Hendricks: The president’s vision is perfectly in line with the realities of higher education today and with the history of our institution. CUA has a great tradition as a graduate institution. That’s a source of pride and strength for us and we need to preserve and support it. But today’s higher education marketplace dictates that institutions adapt and respond to ever-changing conditions, offering programs that are currently in demand, in addition to core traditional programs that have been established in the course of 100 years. As I said earlier, if you’re not growing, you’re dying. To address this, CUA is focusing more on meeting the demands of the local D.C. market by examining current labor needs and labor trends to determine how our strengths in graduate education can be optimized. With so many universities based in Washington and many others having established satellites here, the D.C. area is one of the three or four most competitive higher education marketplaces in the United States. But it’s also one of the most promising. We have a very strong technology sector and a large government sector in this area. Maryland and Virginia are both economic powerhouses. We need to take advantage of this by dramatically increasing the number of graduate students at the part-time master’s level. This won’t happen overnight but it’s where we are headed.

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Revised: July 2007

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