Calvin's Future: Communicating Calvin
Part Five: An Interview with Tom McWhertor

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.

Additional Interviews: President Gaylen Byker | Provost Joel Carpenter | Shirley Hoogstra| Henry DeVries | Tom McWhertor | Dirk Pruis

Tom McWhertor and a prospective student
Tom McWhertor spends many Fridays visiting with prospective students who attend Fridays at Calvin.

What is Calvin’s current recruitment strategy?
Calvin is an institution that draws from students nationally. While this is related to the history of the Christian Reformed Church, it’s broader than just the church. Through a variety of different third-party endorsements from U.S. News and World Report, the Princeton Review and the Fiske Guide to Colleges, Calvin has been put on the national map. We appeal to and communicate with a national audience, so we’re always evaluating the messages that we’re sending out.

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.

Reflecting . . . my life at Calvin
The "Reflecting" Blogs: Calvin students write about their day-to-day experiences at Calvin.

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 year?
Despite a significant amount of research and all kinds of reflection, we have not discovered a specific answer as to why our enrollment was down last year. We were down about 12 percent from the targeted enrollment. Colleagues at other schools were asked to help us analyze our situation; they called 2004-2005 the “perfect storm” and didn’t suggest significant changes.

Student studying
The Roving WebCam photographer wanders about the Knollcrest Campus, capturing images of people, places and events that help "tell the story" of the Calvin experience
Student doing laundry

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?
Because of our broader admissions policy and our mission to serve a range of students, there is a perception abroad that anybody can get into Calvin. That’s not the case. We do have standards for admission; some applicants are denied admission. But we aren’t out to see how many people we can deny. Things have twisted in higher education such that one of the ways a school is measured positively by some ranking organizations is “denial rate,” and that just doesn’t serve us well. We think we do best by helping students see whether or not they fit here, and if they don’t fit to help them see that before they apply rather than send them a denial letter after they’ve applied.

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?
That’s a good question for high school students to ask at any school they are considering. We have a strong heritage in the Christian Reformed Church. It’s only been a couple of generations since nine out of 10 students at Calvin were from the Christian Reformed Church, as well as from the same ethnic heritage. But the reality is that less than half of our students now are from the Christian Reformed Church.

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.

Is Calvin affordable?
We think it’s very affordable, but there’s no doubt that when families look at the sticker price, it does seem like a lot of money. The question I would want to ask in return is, “Compared to what?” If you look at a list of excellent private colleges, you’ll quickly see that Calvin is very affordable relative to its peer institutions. Typically, we look at a group of about 25 institutions nationally that are our peers, and among that group we’re 21st in cost. [See list as PDF.] In other words, 20 schools are higher priced than Calvin. And even the schools lower than Calvin are within $1,000 or so of our cost annually. So if you’re comparing Calvin fairly, you can see that we compare well.

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?
Right. A significant piece of our financial aid comes from our annual operating budget. But a growing piece of it comes from endowment and from gifts from alumni and friends of the college who want to make a Calvin education available to a broad range of families. Each year as our endowment grows, as our named and endowed scholarship program grows, we’re able to help more students in a way that doesn’t affect tuition for the institution.

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?
At public institutions, the odds are that professors in lower-level introductory courses will be teaching assistants, not full professors. There is no class here that isn’t taught by a Calvin professor. Even our young professors are people we are investing in, enabling them to become excellent scholars and teachers so that they can spend their career here. That’s a different kind of teacher than someone who’s still in the process of earning their Ph.D. so that they can move on to something else.

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 audiences?
Let’s start with our tagline — “Minds in the Making.” When we worked to develop that, our goal was to find words that helped bring into the Calvin circle people who wouldn’t take a look at us otherwise. Not that there’s any magic in these four words, but our hope is that it can help to shatter some misperceptions that people who aren’t familiar with Calvin might bring to the table. There’s a significant amount of research that shows that people who hear “Christian college” automatically presume that there’s an academic shortcoming in that institution. That’s probably surprising to Calvin alumni because they know Calvin is a sound academic place. But the reality is that on a national scope, people who aren’t familiar with Calvin automatically presume that we’re academically second-rate if they know we’re a Christian college. Our hope with the tagline was to bring them one step closer. We aren’t stepping back from our thoroughly Christian perspective here. In fact, if anything, I think Calvin is more intentionally Christian than ever before. But what we’re hoping is that Christian people who aren’t familiar with Christian colleges in general, or Calvin in particular, will be brought in to take a closer look to see if, indeed, this might be a good place for them.

What about Calvin’s national reputation?
A tagline isn’t going to set a reputation. Our reputation is going to be established by the accomplishments of our faculty, our alumni and our students. As our graduates are recognized as leaders in their fields, and Calvin is identified as their undergraduate institution, that’s the way in which our reputation is built. As our faculty members are publishing in professional journals or cited as experts in the news media, those are the things that build the Calvin reputation on a broader scale.

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?
Calvin is an academically excellent Christian college that is working to develop in students the kind of thinking and commitments that will make them agents of renewal in God’s world. We’re not just about doing education here for education’s sake. We’re doing education for the kingdom’s sake. Our whole core curriculum is structured to do that because we’re not just imparting skills, we’re imparting virtues, which makes for students who are going to be change agents in God’s kingdom, wherever they find themselves.