Whether it's a desire to stay close to family and friends - or factoring in the added stressors of a challenging economy - staying close to home for a private college education makes sense to students on many levels. Recognizing these factors, area private schools make a concerted effort to increase communication with potential students to find out what they want in a school and what might move them into the enrollment column.
A survey helps River Forest-based Concordia University Chicago assess why the school gets the nod from incoming students. The information collected has revealed three main factors: reputation of academic programs, especially education and business; affordability, financial assistance offered; and location, including its close proximity to Chicago, says Evelyn Burdick, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Concordia.
"The one additional factor cited by local students who intend to commute is the close proximity to home," says Burdick.
Concordia's success in encouraging students to enroll has attracted national attention. In July, Concordia University Chicago was one of only three universities across the nation honored with a 2009 Marketing and Recruitment Excellence Award from Noel Levitz, a national higher education consulting firm for student marketing, recruitment and retention practice and research.
This highly competitive award recognizes Concordia for marketing and recruitment best-practices based on several factors, says Burdick. "Among the best-practice technologies we use to benefit prospective students and their families is the new highly successful and popular Web portal tailored just for them," she says.
Launched in March, the portal - Connect.CUChicago.edu - is a special Web site available 24/7 to all new students and their parents to access their latest admissions information, schedule visits to campus, choose housing options, accept financial aid packages, register for orientation, as well as learn about college success tips, counseling services, student organizations and more.
This effort has paid off for Concordia. "We are set to enroll the largest incoming freshman class in the 145-year history of the university," says Burdick. "More than 350 new freshmen - an unprecedented 40 percent increase over the previous year." Students from Illinois make up 65 percent of the incoming students, with 57 percent of those coming from a distance of 50 miles or less.
Building the foundation
Aurora University has seen an up-tick of 8 percent in its in-state student population for incoming freshmen, says Donna DeSpain, vice president for enrollment at Aurora University. The number of incoming freshmen from Illinois is 374, with 157 of them traveling from a distance of 50 miles or less.
"The transfer student population has also shown an increase with some local students returning home from out-of-state schools to attend Aurora," says DeSpain. "We believe the trend is due to the uncertain economic times and an increased desire to stay closer to home."
Aurora relies on word-of-mouth to spread awareness of its strong reputation, in addition to its presence and active involvement in the local community, says DeSpain.
Passing the word are Aurora students who go into the community as part of their studies. "Many of our students work for local schools in the afternoon tutoring programs," says DeSpain. "Our nursing students regularly work at community health events doing blood pressure checks and other health assessments. We have social work interns in many social service agencies and student teachers in various school settings."
In addition, Aurora University is also present in the community at events such as Fiesta de Luces, Aurora Chamber EXPO, City of Aurora Benefits Fair, and many other school and community gatherings, says DeSpain.
Helping to attract students and their parents, as well as increase retention, is the school's First-Year Program. It is designed to ease the transition from high school to college and help students succeed in and out of the classroom. The program includes advising sessions, topical seminars, mentoring programs and social activities. It has been recognized nationally as a model program and was recently selected for a national project called "Foundations of Excellence in the First College Year."
While a private school education is prized more for quality than affordability, both Concordia and Aurora do recognize the struggles some families face.
"Overall, our tuition, room and board increased by less than 5 percent and we raised the threshold and maximum of our merit scholarships as well as the percentage of financial need we would meet for deserving students," says Burdick. "We continue to offer some level of institutional financial assistance to 100 percent of all Concordia undergraduate students."
The school also "aggressively emphasizes values and outcomes of the Concordia Chicago experience to help families understand the value of their investment in their child's education," she adds.
Aurora University understands that each student's financial situation is unique, says DeSpain. "We look at each student's information very carefully to provide the best financial possibilities and to educate the student/family on the options. We remain diligent in our monitoring of any and all financial aid changes on state and federal landscapes so the University can react positively when necessary."
Aurora has purposefully kept its tuition increase much below the national average in an attempt to offer students high-quality, affordable education, she adds.
For both Concordia in-coming freshman Abby Hackbert of Round Lake Beach and Aurora freshman Morgan Gibson from Yorkville, the quality of a private school education is what most attracted them to their school choice. The fact that both girls received scholarship money from their respective schools, while not a deciding factor for either one of them, was certainly something both girls - and their parents - appreciate.
"The economics of getting a private school education did not factor into my decision to apply to a local university," says Gibson. "Education maps your future so my parents were open to any school that was of interest to me. However, Aurora University gave me numerous grants and scholarships [federal, state and university]. The total aid package was instrumental in helping me come here."
The fact that Aurora is a local school did carry weight with Gibson, who will be a commuter. "I am staying local because I need to be closer to my job as a professional horse rider in Oswego," she says. "I also want to attend a great nursing program, and Aurora University was a perfect match for me in terms of quality and location."
Hackbert fits right into the survey results cited by Burdick. "Concordia has the two things I want most: a great education and a strong fine arts program," says Hackbert. "I also like that Concordia has a small community feeling with easy access to a big city." Even though Hackbert will be living on campus, being close to her own hometown was important to her."[Going to Concordia] will make it much easier to stay connected with everyone back home and I can continue to support my old theater program by attending shows," she says. "I'll have to make sure I don't go home too often and risk missing out on the college experience."
Hackbert is a President Honors Scholar award recipient. The scholarship covers the full cost of tuition at Concordia.
"From a financial perspective the President and music scholarships are a huge blessing to our family," says Jean Hackbert, Abby's mother. "However, we have always been more interested in the quality of Abby's educational experience than the cost. Both my husband and I are graduates of a Lutheran school and know the value of a faith-based, liberal arts education."
Jean Hackbert does appreciate some of the cost-saving benefits of attending a nearby university. "Since Abby's brother, Matt, left for Arizona State four years ago, he has only been able to come home a few times. With Abby studying just an hour away [outside of rush hour], we will be able to share more of her college experiences without using vacation days and buying a plane ticket or renting a hotel room," she says.
The Concordia freshman has plans of her own for the money she will be saving by attending an in-state school.
"The commute [back home to visit] will be fairly cheap, so I plan on using the extra money saved to buy some cute shoes," she says. ■Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun