Spark continues a six-part series of conversations with the leadership of Calvin College, bringing readers up to date with campus issues and examining future directions. Vice president for enrollment and external relations Tom McWhertor is a graduate of Grove City College (Pa.) and holds a master of divinity degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (Mass.). Before coming to Calvin, McWhertor held positions at the Coalition for Christian Outreach, Center for Public Justice, Williamsburg Charter Foundation and Second Watch. In 1991, he accepted an appointment as Calvin’s director of admissions and in 1995 was promoted to his vice presidential post, where he oversees admissions, financial aid and institutional research operations, as well as alumni, community, media and public relations initiatives.
What is Calvin’s current recruitment
In addition, we’ve begun focusing on the younger student. We don’t want to take away from students’ high school experiences and make them focus too early on college because college isn’t everything. But the trend now is to begin college searches much earlier. Our research shows that families are beginning to think about colleges even in middle school. Often by the time a student enters high school, the family has already chosen the list of schools they’re going to consider. So we’re communicating earlier with children of alumni and with children in particular churches or schools where we have good interaction. Over the last few years we’ve begun to interact directly with high school sophomores.
Another feature of the strategy has been to communicate more holistically about Calvin, talking about all aspects of the institution, still highlighting our academics and the integral Christian perspective that pervades the institution, but noting that student life and vocation matter, too.
We stress that people need to come to campus. We think the tremendous selling points of Calvin College are the people and the place, and so a strong piece of our recruitment strategy is to encourage students and their parents to visit Calvin. We usually have upwards of 2,000 students visit through our Fridays at Calvin program each year, and have another equal number who visit on their own terms.
We have a good enrollment rate among those who visit. We think every aspect of the institution that they see when they come here enhances their interest in Calvin. Actually, if alumni of yester-year have not been to campus recently, I would encourage them to visit as well. God is doing great work here.
Finally, we are building new strategies and partnerships to enable alumni and friends to assist us in recruiting.
What do you think was the reason for the
drop in enrollment last year, and what do the numbers look like for this
But that doesn’t mean we didn’t scrutinize our efforts and make any changes. We did, and we are really encouraged by all the numbers at this point for the fall. We’ve enhanced our scholarship program a bit; it had been a long time since we had done that. In my mind it’s a good sign that we hadn’t made those changes earlier because it demonstrated strength of reputation; the institution was selling itself. Calvin didn’t need larger scholarship amounts to attract more students. But we concluded that part of our shortfall last year was attributable to the fact that we just hadn’t offered as competitive a scholarship program to draw as many students, so we made some slight changes to the program, and we can see already that this has generated new interest among top students.
We also gave incentives to apply early; that generated early interest, and we’ve sustained that through the spring. Calvin’s been on a steady enrollment pattern for six or seven years after building up the enrollment through the 1990s, and we expect that we’ll take care of last year’s shortfall and level things out again.
Does anyone get denied admission to Calvin?
Typically, students with averages in high school of a B- or above, and with commensurate ACT and SAT scores, can be successful at Calvin, and we strive to serve that range of students. Many schools of our academic caliber only take A students. That would be easier on our faculty and would boost Calvin’s academic rating. But we have a tremendous number of examples of successful Calvin graduates who came in with lower grades and have gone on to make a significant mark in the world for God’s kingdom, and we don’t want to miss those students. We’re very conscious that students have to fit academically as well as in a variety of other ways. That being said, we do have some students here who have academic averages below that B- range, and those students often are admitted into our alternative-entry program called Access. These students work with our office of student academic services to receive extra help, especially during their first year, to enable them to successfully complete their education here.
Is Calvin really an open, diverse environment?
In the early 1980s a decision was made that the education provided here was much, much too good to keep to ourselves. At that time Calvin started to market itself beyond the realm of the church. Prior to that, people outside of the Christian Reformed Church only stumbled on Calvin, and those who did were pleasantly surprised. We now actively recruit students who are members of a broad range of churches, far beyond the Christian Reformed Church. The Calvin message is spread much more broadly. You can see it in the places that our faculty publish articles. You can see it in the fact that we place advertisements in a broader array of publications so that students in a variety of places can see how they might fit. Let me add a strong caveat to this point: Calvin will always continue recruiting strongly within Christian Reformed circles — school and churches. Diversity does not have to come at the expense of ignoring historical constituencies and traditions.
For the inquisitive student who’s looking for the academic rigor and Christian perspective that we offer, they’re going to be very much at home here, no matter what their educational or church background might be.
Calvin is a good place, and I think the breadth of the student body grows wider each year. For the inquisitive student who’s looking for the academic rigor and Christian perspective that we offer, they’re going to be very much at home here, no matter what their educational or church background might be.
As for multicultural diversity, one of the hallmarks of our effort right now is a restatement of our commitment that was passed by our full faculty in October 2003, called “From Every Nation.” This document outlines our desire to be an anti-racist institution that welcomes students, faculty and staff from all ethnic and racial backgrounds. Our percentage of students from ethnic backgrounds is a little over 5 percent now, as opposed to 1 percent 15 to 20 years ago. That’s a good improvement, but that’s not yet where it ought to be. So part of our effort in student outreach as well as in our faculty recruitment is to make sure that we speak to people who are going to add cultural, racial and ethnic diversity to our mix here and help them to see themselves here.
If you’re comparing us with public institutions, however, Calvin is obviously going to be a more expensive place, but we think that Calvin’s value is worth it. We also know that the actual cost of Calvin depends on your family situation. In addition to comparing us with other private institutions, we ask families to look carefully at what it will cost them to send their child to Calvin; this is where our excellent financial aid program comes into play. We have developed a financial aid program that levels the playing field between Calvin and other places with regard to cost. All the data that we can produce demonstrates that Calvin’s costs are affordable for students and families across income levels. What we find is that admitted students who have the highest need are actually the students who enroll at the highest rate, and we think that’s due to our financial aid program. While it’s true that most families worry about cost, the reality is that families who really can’t come up with the dollars receive the aid they need. We do realize that we can never give enough aid; it will take some sacrifice on the part of every family to be able to send their sons or daughters to Calvin. But we’re encouraged by the way in which we are able to empower families to choose a Calvin education regardless of their financial situation.
And hasn’t that financial aid been
enhanced by donors, through scholarships, endowment and the annual fund?
I have the opportunity each year to attend a dinner where the recipients of the named scholarships get to meet the donors. It is an inspiring event, as we witness the connection made between donors and the very students they’ve helped. To those who have been blessed with money to give away, I encourage you to invest in Calvin students through scholarships; those donors will come away blessed again.
What are students getting
for their dollar in terms of quality at Calvin?
Our faculty/student ratio is also impressive. Since the early 1990s we have reduced the faculty/student ratio significantly; we’ve dropped from a 1:17 faculty/student ratio to 1:12. That means that for every 12 students, we have a professor available. At Calvin, students have opportunities to do research and to engage with their professors personally and often. All of our faculty are here because they want to be at a teaching institution; they’re not just putting in their time in the classroom so they can get back to the lab. Teaching is what we’re about, and that makes a difference.
How does Calvin describe itself to various
What about Calvin’s national reputation?
You don’t build the reputation of an institution through an ad campaign; you don’t build it through a tagline. You build it through over 130 years of hard work, pursuing the academic enterprise from a Christian perspective in all that we do. The Christian world has recognized that Calvin is a place where Christian faith is pursued in every academic discipline, and at the same time faculty members are speaking to topics of relevance across our society. The more they do that, the more Calvin’s reputation grows.
How do you describe Calvin College?
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