Director's Desk • How Do Teenagers Choose a College?
By Michael Van Denend '78

Mike Van Denend
Michael Van Denend
Executive Director, Calvin Alumni Association

To say that Calvin administrators were surprised at being down 146 students this fall isn’t exactly accurate.

Admissions staff members saw troubling trends emerging in January of 2004 and made as many adjustments as possible to address the challenge. Extra hours and hard work could not stave off this September’s outcome of 902 first-year students, down from the 1,042 of the previous year. Calvin’s total enrollment is 4,186, compared with 4,332 a year ago.

One can say that Calvin administrators are both puzzled by this turn of events and determined to bring those numbers back where they belong.

Why the decline after years of growth and steady enrollment results? Consultants and admissions professionals from other institutions were invited to look closely at Calvin’s case and the conclusion was a “perfect storm” of application competition, affordability questions and a variety of regional issues unrelated to Calvin directly. While Calvin officials were relieved that they had left no stone unturned looking for prospective students, not discovering a clear reason for the decline looms large over this year’s enrollment season.

Calvin’s admissions office has been implementing a number of new strategies over the last few years to increase the number of applications to the college. The college now starts earlier in the “inquiry stage,” sending mailings to high school sophomores, purchasing lists of students with characteristics that might draw them to Calvin and making strategic use of the Web and electronic communication to build up a larger prospect and applicant pool.

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Any Calvin admissions application form received by January 3, 2005, which mentions this "Director's Desk" article will receive a waiver of the application fee.

Additionally, adjustments in admissions counselor duties are aimed at making the time that counselors spend on the road more effective. The office has also enlisted associate director Tasha Paul to develop a new partnership model to get Calvin alumni and friends more involved in the recruitment process.

So Calvin’s doing its part. Now it’s up to alumni and friends to match this effort. How? Well, the days of alumni parents saying to their kids, “You have three choices: Calvin, Calvin and Calvin,” are over. Parents now handle the college search process as full participants, but more as advisors than as directors.

But parents can make two simple requests of their high schoolers: that they simply include Calvin in the list of schools they will visit — and by visit I mean the official Fridays at Calvin program with an overnight stay in the residence halls — and that they fill out an application. (Another change Calvin made this year is a simplified application form with an application fee waiver for those who mail it in early in the process. The fee-waiver deadline this year is December 1, but since this issue of Spark comes out after that date, any student sending in a form and mentioning Spark has until January 3, 2005.)

I am convinced that visiting Calvin and going through the application process will allow the college to make a strong case to any high school senior. The core problem of last year was not having enough applications filled out. We may not enroll every student, but the special nature of this Christian academic community has to be experienced to be truly appreciated, and I like Calvin’s chances when we’re given a level playing field with any school.

The admissions office has come up with a number of other ways that alumni and friends can assist:

1. Be sure that the admissions office knows the names of prospective high school students in your circle of influence. Fill out an online referral form and send their names, graduation year and contact information (including e-mail if you know it) to admissions@calvin.edu. Don’t assume Calvin knows them already.

2. Spread the word in those circles regarding the value of a Calvin education. Thousands of students and families can testify that it’s worth the investment and the sacrifice.

3. Encourage students to apply and explore the way in which Calvin’s excellent scholarships and financial aid program make a Calvin education affordable to families of all economic means. It is important that students do not self-select based on sticker price without seeing how the scholarship and financial aid program ($43 million in assistance from all sources last year) will enable them to attend Calvin.

4. Keep all of this in prayer! Pray for those who are representing Calvin near and far and for all of the technical aspects of the college’s student outreach. And pray for high school juniors and seniors and their families as they consider Calvin and other institutions during this life-shaping college search process.

At Calvin we have discovered anew that getting into the mind of a 17- or 18-year-old is a significant challenge. Those who know the life-changing experience of attending this college can at least post a sign in those minds that reads, “Consider Calvin.”