Applications at an All-Time High

Jim Amidon — Interest in Wabash College is at an all-time high.

Last Thursday, the Wabash Admissions Office received its 1,456th application for admission. That breaks the previous record of 1,450 applications set two years ago.

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Steve Klein said that applications have been running 15-20 percent ahead of last year since the start of the recruiting season in August.

When I heard about the new record, I scratched my head and said out loud, “What gives?”

With the nation’s economy in shambles, how could a pricey, private college like Wabash see such a spike in applications?

Common sense would suggest that high school seniors are applying to more colleges and keeping their options open for the best financial aid and scholarship packages.

Yet when I compared Wabash’s surge in applications to other peer institutions around the Midwest, only a couple of colleges and universities were up in applications this year. Many were either about even with last year or way down.

So I sat down with Dean Klein and asked him what he thought was driving interest in Wabash, especially in such tough economic times.

"We’re doing things well,” he said of his veteran staff. “We recruit students the old fashioned way — person to person. Maybe that kind of approach is more resilient in winds of change in the market. We build interpersonal relationships with students and their families that endure. As we build those relationships, we’re also utilizing new technologies — our website, blogs, Facebook, and even YouTube. What it boils down to is a fully integrated, campus-wide approach to recruiting.

“Maybe our success comes from having to work so hard over the years to meet the challenge of recruiting at a college for men,” he told me. “We really do work hard. We go a long way to get to know our prospective students, getting them to complete their applications, and getting them to visit our campus.”

He’s right. I’ve met college admissions professionals at other schools who are astonished by the effort Wabash’s admissions and coaching staffs put into the recruiting process. Klein sums it up correctly, I think.

“We have a good program, a very hard-working staff, and we have a staff that is truly committed to Wabash College; it’s more than just a job to them.”

In our conversation about the record number of applicants this year, Klein’s tone turned serious.

“We’re in unprecedented circumstances this year,” he said in reference to the economy. “We usually rely on historical data in building our freshman class; we have predictive models that indicate the percentages of our admitted students who will enroll here in the fall.

“This year is unpredictable.”

The increase in applications doesn’t necessarily mean Klein’s troops will hit their goal of 250 new students in August. This year more than most, high school seniors and their families are likely to make decisions based solely on finances.

Colleges are in a lesser position to offer financial aid because the investments used to fund financial aid were hit hard by the stock market drop. And in a year when families are likely to have greater financial need you get what Klein calls “a real wild card year.”

“It’s more important this year than ever that we help families understand the value of a Wabash education,” he said.

The value is tangible and has been the backbone of the Admission Office’s recruiting strategy for a decade. Relationships with professors are the heart of the Wabash experience, and the impact of those relationships — challenge, insight, support, and guidance — lasts far beyond the four years students spend on campus.

Wabash’s value includes a connection to generations of alumni across the country and across career paths. Wabash has long been committed to off-campus study and immersion learning experiences. Students have access to paid internships and externships on and off campus. And underlying all of the Wabash experience is the fundamental culture of trust and responsibility.

To bring in the class, the admissions team will now concentrate on getting students to visit campus during Honor Scholarship Weekend in March. “That’s a time when we provide a great weekend when they can get to know us better,” Klein said. “The better they know us, the more open they become to Wabash and commit to becoming a member of this community.”

The economic crisis has put higher education leaders like Dean Klein in uncharted territory where historically accurate predictive models are rendered meaningless. Still, Klein and his staff are excited about the coming months.

“We’ve always been able to do what it takes to get the job done,” he said with a smile emerging on his face. “We’ll keep working hard, moving forward, and see what happens, and as a result we’ll be that much smarter heading into next year.

And that’s a “Wabash Always Fights” kind of attitude, indeed!