Education

Jessica Luna

University of Vermont redesigned their program during COVID to meet enrollment goals

If spearheading the only MBA program in a major state university wasn’t difficult enough, imagine having to completely reimagine, redesign, and re-strategize the program in a matter of months.

That’s precisely what the program director of the Sustainable Innovation MBA (SIMBA) at the University of VermontCaroline Hauser, and her team of directors had to. We sat down with Caroline to find out how COVID impacted the program and how she and her team were able to meet their enrollment goals with in-person classes and continue to offer a fulfilling curriculum to future changemakers.

Jessica: Tell us about your role and your responsibilities at UVM and the MBA Business School.

Caroline: I’m the program director for the MBA program at UVM’s Grossman School of Business. UVM offers a Sustainable Innovation MBA which integrates sustainable business practices across various disciplines, focusing on the tools needed to manage a business today and lead through change tomorrow. We have a co-director model where I run the operations and administrative side, thinking about more long-term strategy, as well as admissions, recruitment, and the day-to-day of the program work. Then we have an academic director who is a finance professor. He oversees the curriculum side – everything that happens within the classroom. We work very closely together. Finally, we have a program coordinator who helps with a lot of the administrative pieces and keeping things organized and running.

Jessica: What are your roles and responsibilities on the marketing and recruiting side?

Caroline: I’m currently overseeing all of it. When I first joined a little over a year ago, we didn’t really have anything in place that we were doing in terms of marketing strategy. There was very little work done on the social media site as well as in SEM, but no strategy was really set in place. We’ve been quite limited with a budget, unfortunately, which I think is the case across the board for universities. But yes, since I took on the role I’ve been working on implementing outreach and lead generation strategies really thinking about ways that we can reach students that wouldn’t otherwise hear about the program. 

Jessica: During our email exchange earlier this week you mentioned that your MBA program was able to operate mostly in person throughout this last semester. Can you tell us more about the initiatives and strategies that the university needed to take?

Caroline: Yes, I think the first level of response is that Vermont shut down really quickly. We implemented travel restrictions pretty early back in March, as soon as things started taking off in the US and the university made everything in their power to make our campus safe for our students.

As of December, UVM performed 144,894 COVID tests with only 99 students testing positive.

UVM eliminated mandatory test scores and made our application fee-free to lower those barriers for people that might not have applied otherwise. We’ve actually received a record number of applications by a pretty wide margin. I think having a lot of interest helped to motivate us to say, “Okay, we need to set these students up for success.”

We have a total of 39 students in this year’s class all in person, which is not bad at all for us given the situation we are in. From an operational perspective, we’ve been performing weekly testing and of course ensuring our classrooms allow for social distancing. We had to move our classrooms into larger spaces allowing students to be seated six feet apart. 

Jessica: Do the 39 students enrolled in this year match your enrollment numbers from previous years or did you experience a decrease due to COVID?

Caroline: It’s on the higher end of what our classes have been, we offer a personalized learning structure so we try to cap our admitted students at 50. Enrollment numbers fluctuate every year, we still need to continue working on our marketing/awareness strategies and getting the word out about the program. There wasn’t anyone focusing on growing and building the program strategically before I came in, because the former people in my position were working part-time with an outside job; or were part-time but also a full-time professor. Having that focus definitely made a difference in increasing our application numbers this year.

Also, I’d like to add that this year we had 22 students who deferred, meaning that 22 people have already committed for next year’s admission cycle, which is definitely a record. I mean, generally, there’s one to two students that might defer every year but 22 is a really high number. I’m so glad we are increasing our brand awareness and having new students learn about our program. 

Jessica: Did the school do anything else in terms of online engagement and recruitment to achieve these enrollment numbers?

Caroline: Yes. Really focusing on who our leads are and nurturing marketing qualified leads – those people that might have reached out for information or engaged with our content previously, and focusing on showcasing our student success stories and their experience through the MBA program.

We launched a lot of webinars with a couple of last year’s students, and with a group of our alumni who are highly engaged and who continue to be involved with the program. We hosted these webinars with various topics, for example, a webinar with current students and you could learn from their stories, how they got to the program, how their experience is going, etc. Another webinar with alumni talking about their path from pre-SIMBA, to going through the program, and then what they’ve been doing since graduating, and more! I think increasing those points of engagement was helpful. 

The other thing we did that we hadn’t done in previous years is that we implemented interviews as part of the admissions process. We were interviewing people starting last fall, so pre-COVID. Then as COVID happened, we continued to do these interviews. I think spending time one-on-one having conversations with prospective students made a really big difference in people’s decisions.

Jessica: What are your strongest channels for lead generation pre and post-COVID?

Caroline: Our alumni are amazing at referring people to the program. This year, throughout the interview process, I spoke with two people who told me that they were applying for the program because they’d been in a job interview process and the person who ended up getting the job at the end was a SIMBA graduate. They looked this person up on LinkedIn, saw they had this degree, and they were like, “I need that degree because I want to get this job.” 

We’ve also been doing some pretty targeted LinkedIn campaigns with direct messaging and structured audience targeting. I’d say alumni and LinkedIn are our strongest channels. 

Jessica: I understand the University uses HubSpot and Salesforce to manage and nurture your leads. How is the whole CRM and nurturing process going?

Caroline: I think the challenge for us is time and budget, that being said, we’re doing better than we were. All of our Salesforce leads feed into HubSpot, and then we organize people by list―prospective students, students who have deferred, people who’ve applied previously but turned down our admissions offer, etc. Even though these tools are robust we are still doing a lot of manual work here. I don’t think we are using these technologies to their full potential and a lot of prospective students might be getting lost through our admissions cycle. 

Jessica: What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in using these technologies for recruiting and admissions?

Caroline: I would say the biggest challenge is having time to learn how to use these technologies and the lack of resources. Salesforce is such an incredible tool. It is so feature-rich but it’s so complex and needs so much training and implementation work to set it up in a way that works for our program. We use a university-wide license for both Salesforce and HubSpot and we don’t have the knowledge in-house to implement these on a program level. 

Another challenge that comes to mind especially during these past months is competing with a really crazy news cycle. People only have a limited amount of attention and capacity. I think that we all like to think that the work that we’re doing is important but it feels like there are things that are so much higher stakes. I felt this more right around the election, just really getting people to sign up for a webinar or focus on anything besides the whirlwind of COVID, elections, etc. This is not directly technologically related but I would say that that was a challenge for us this fall, and I think that’s probably a challenge across the board.

Another thing, too, would be the international student recruitment piece of it all. We had a number of international students defer or decline the offer of admission last year because of issues with visas and uncertainty around whether the program would be in-person. In general, reaching international students has been tough and something we have not focused on as much, but know there’s great growth potential.

Jessica: What are your hopes or your goals for next year’s recruitment season?

Caroline: Since the beginning of the program, the cap of students was always right around 50, and that’s our goal. Due to our personalized learning structure, we make sure we have a small, but a strong cohort of students, so 39 is a comfortable number this year. If everything goes we’re hoping to be able to have closer to 50 students next year and at least 10 percent by international students. 

Today, increasing awareness and demand for higher education programs like the Sustainable Innovation MBA at UVM relies solely on digital marketing and online recruiting. Gone are the days where run-of-the-mill college fairs ensured student enrollment. Luckily, CRMs, lead generation via social media, digital marketing strategies, and automated marketing tools work to alleviate some of the stress brought on by maintaining and growing higher education programs. The trick is, having the expertise and resources to execute these components in the right way. I’m personally impressed with the way that UVM and the SIMBA program have redesigned their offering to meet their enrollment numbers last year. 

What is UniCentrico by Centrico Digital? 

Higher-Ed Tide: Vanderbilt and their shift to online recruiting & SalesforceUniCentrico is a Canadian-Ecuadorian recruiting service and platform that helps North American universities identify and connect with prospective students from Latin America. UniCentrico uses digital marketing to help universities identify and qualify prospective students. For more information, please contact Jessica Luna, Higher Education Marketing Head at jessica@centricodigital.com.

 

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