Defying the Odds on Yield

Free tuition in New York State was supposed to make it impossible for places like Nazareth College to build a class. Yet the private college's yield is up and it will enroll a larger class this fall, without increasing the discount rate.

May 8, 2017
 
Nazareth College

This year seemed likely to be a tough admissions cycle for Nazareth College, in Rochester, N.Y.

New York State has just enacted free tuition for those who enroll at the State University of New York or City University of New York, leaving many private colleges worried about their ability to compete. Most independent colleges in New York State aren't wealthy or famous. Nor do they have national student bodies -- they tend to serve New Yorkers. At Nazareth, 88 percent of students are from New York State.

And while the college has a strong local reputation -- particularly in health science and some arts fields -- Nazareth is not well known nationally. In other words, it's just the kind of college that many expected to be hurt badly by free tuition at SUNY and CUNY, announced just as high school seniors would be making their choices on where to enroll.

The sky didn't fall at Nazareth. It's enrolling more students, with a higher yield and a lower admit rate.

Nazareth Admissions Statistics

  For Class Enrolled Fall 2016 For Class Enrolling Fall 2017 Change
Applications 4,094 4,479 +9.40%
Admits 2,947 2,808 -4.72%
Admissions Rate 71.98% 62.69% -12.91%
May 1 Deposits 537 557 +3.72%
Yield 18.22% 19.84% +8.89%

And those statistics were achieved without a higher discount rate. The rate for the new class is just under 50 percent, half a percentage point down from the previous year.

Nazareth is by no means out of the woods. New York State's free tuition program became law as students were deciding where to enroll, but after most students and their families had spent time considering college choices -- without having free SUNY in mind. Next year may be tougher.

Ian Mortimer, vice president for enrollment management at Nazareth, said he thinks the college has benefited from a "sense of urgency" about competition, well before Cuomo proposed free tuition. Within a two-hour drive of Nazareth are 38 other bachelor's institutions, 11 of them part of SUNY. Last year, about 20 percent of the students who were accepted by Nazareth but didn't enroll there selected a SUNY campus. But top competition has typically come from private institutions like Nazareth -- places in Western New York like Ithaca College, Le Moyne College and Niagara University.

For Mortimer, this means that the key is both improving the education and services delivered -- and the pitches used.

With parents, he said the admissions team talks a lot about the Center for Life's Work, which provides a range of services to students to help them explore career options and to find internships and jobs. Judging from the questions and reactions he sees, Mortimer said that this is a top priority with parents.

With students and parents alike, Mortimer said that Nazareth succeeds when it steers the conversation to the program level. "We have to be micro in our presentation," he said.

For example, he said that when recruiting students to health professions programs -- an academic strength -- the college's investments in recent years allow recruiters to say "if you study in the health sciences, you will never be in a building more than three years old." That includes lectures, labs, clinical spaces and more. That kind of emphasis wins students over. That's why the college is raising money for a new music performance space.

The facilities spending, Mortimer said, is about academics, and that message has resonated. "You won't find a climbing wall on campus," he said.

"If we can convey to students on a granular level what we offer, we do well," he said. "If we are talking to families and get into discussing SUNY tuition, we have already lost."

Still, Mortimer says next year may be more difficult. Part of the competitive environment for next year will depend on how clearly and efficiently the state sets up the free tuition program, he said. Many government programs with popular aims "can still create heartache," he said.

But regardless of what New York State does, "the threat of free as an idea is very real -- and it's a new competitive context and there's no way we can minimize what it can potentially do," Mortimer said.

The current strategy -- putting an emphasis on programs and improving those programs -- will be the strategy in the coming year as well. What free tuition will do, he said, is "remove even more our ability to have a margin of error."

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