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Institutions expand recruiting reach to attract more students

Rochester Business Journal
January 31, 2014

Rochester-area colleges often look far beyond Monroe County for new students.

The numbers of freshmen who come from outside the Rochester region to attend local institutions of higher learning vary, but recruiting officers expect them to increase in the coming years. Chief among the factors driving up those numbers is the shrinking pool of local applicants from which a college or university could draw.

“We do recruit fairly heavily nationally and internationally,” says James Miller, senior vice president for enrollment management and career services at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Upstate New York is expected to continue a gradual decline in the population of college-age residents.

“The amount of high school graduates has gone down for the last few years, and we’re seeing 10 years out that it’s going to continue to go down every year,” says David Roberts, associate director of freshman admissions of St. John Fisher College.

But the demographic trend is not the only factor at work. The Rochester City School District, the largest school district in the area, graduated only 43.4 percent of its high school seniors in 2012—a rate 2 percentage points lower than the year before. And less than 10 percent of the new graduates were found able to meet the demands of college study. While most of the region’s high schools are in much better shape and some graduate high numbers of college-ready youths, local recruiters expect the regional pool of potential college applicants to shrink.

Compounding such problems, even college-ready high school grads still need to meet local institutions’ admission requirements—which transcend good grades. Miller says RIT’s recruiters look for strong performers who are academically well-prepared and drawn to the college’s innovative programs.

“It’s trying to identify students who are interested in, who could contribute to and benefit from the education experience,” he explains.

Over at the University of Rochester, the kinds of applicants the college desires are not interested in merely taking college courses but in deeply investigating the subjects involved.

“The faculty teaching classes are research specialists,” says Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid at UR. “They are, by and large, meeting students who are nearly as interested as they are in the topics at hand.”

The strongest part of the application process at Roberts Wesleyan College goes beyond academics.

“We’re a Christian school, and so oftentimes we’re looking for students who want a faith-based education,” says J.P. Anderson, associate vice president of undergraduate admission at the college, which is affiliated with the Free Methodist Church.

To avoid declining enrollment, local institutions have been forced to compete more intensely for the area’s high school graduates or reach farther away than before to recruit others.

“For economic reasons, we need to draw from a much more diverse area,” says Ian Mortimer, vice president for enrollment management at Nazareth College of Rochester.

In recent years, local institutions have used existing networks to recruit new students from outside the area or have developed new measures for doing so. UR sends its recruiters to 35 states and as many as 20 countries each year. As it has done so, the share of freshmen from other countries has grown from some 3 percent in 2003 to 18 percent in 2013.

“The share of applications coming in from abroad is (rising) even faster, and many of those students are well-qualified,” Burdick says.

Chinese students make up the largest number of those from abroad, according to Burdick. Last year alone, the university received nearly 3,000 applications from China.

RIT began reaching outside the Rochester area for applicants in the 1960s and beyond New York in the 1980s, but it did not stop there.

“The global push has been going on for 25 years,” Miller says.

The college currently devotes more than 50 percent of its recruiting resources to attracting students from outside the region. Of its 2013-14 freshman class, 53 percent came from outside New York. St. John Fisher College historically has focused most of its recruiting efforts within 100 miles of its Pittsford campus, though it does seek new students in other parts of New York and as far away as Massachusetts. Five years ago, the college began shifting more of its resources beyond the Rochester region.

“We had to get out of our typical area in order to be able to survive,” Roberts says.

The change appears to be bearing fruit. Five years ago, 75 percent of St. John Fisher’s student body was from within 100 miles of its campus. Today that share has been reduced to 70 percent.

Nazareth College recruits from as far away as Ohio, but about 64 percent of its students come from closer to its Pittsford campus.

“Right now, we’re fairly regional. … Most of our students come from within 150 miles,” Mortimer says.

The college is in the early stage of developing a strategy to expand its market.

“We need to make more people around the Midwest and the Northeast aware of the uniqueness of Nazareth,” Mortimer says.

Some 43 percent of Roberts Wesleyan’s freshman classes have come from the Rochester region over the past five years. Though the college’s recruiters travel around upstate and as far as southern Ohio, in recent years the college also has sought to use promotional programs to draw more students from outside the area. Anderson has put forward for approval the goal of increasing enrollment of freshmen from outside Upstate New York by an average of 15 percent per year over the next five years.

“We need to continue to till the ground … because of the unique niche of students that comes to Roberts,” he asserts.

Some of the efforts have already yielded results. An offer of housing scholarships to students from Buffalo, Albany, New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania helped boost enrollment in the 2014-15 freshman class by 30 percent.

In addition to trying to increase its enrollment of U.S. students who live outside the Rochester region, Roberts Wesleyan also is spending energy on international recruitment.

“We also are looking at different relationships from high schools in Malaysia and China, to develop agreements that would help students come to Roberts,” Anderson says.

Incoming students who have difficulty reading or speaking English can sharpen their language skills at the college’s relatively new English Language Institute.

Though local colleges can boost enrollment and revenue through the addition of students from outside this area, the resulting diversity can also increase the quality of the learning experiences they provide for all of their students.

“It’s really fundamental that you have a broad base, a diverse population, a very well-qualified population,” Miller says. “That just enriches the learning for all.”

Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

1/31/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email

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