Vanderbilt focus on recruitment in California, West yields positive results

Effort that began in mid-2000s has been 'strategic measure'

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Vanderbilt University attracted only modest interest from students living west of the Mississippi River — Texas notwithstanding.

Though the university’s student body during the 1980s and 1990s likely was more diverse, in terms of U.S. state representation, than was Nashville’s general population, the VU numbers nonetheless revealed a certain uniformity.

But a combination of a more mobile American populace, Nashville’s elevated national profile and Vanderbilt’s concerted efforts to expand its recruiting reach has dramatically altered the student demographics at the West End corridor- based institution.

“It was a strategic measure,” Douglas Christiansen, VU vice provost for enrollment management, said of an effort that began in the mid-2000s and has seen substantial results.

For example, in 2008 Vanderbilt saw 870 prospective students living in California apply for admission. In 2013, that number was 2,391, a 174 percent increase.

“We wanted to enhance our draw, not only in California but in the whole West,” said Christiansen (pictured), who arrived at VU in 2006. “We started numerous programs in 2007 and 2008. It was very purposeful.”

In what the school calls the “Western region,” from 2008 to 2013, student applications increased 157 percent — from 1,420 to 3,655. By comparison, in 2008 Vanderbilt had approximately 17,000 applicants overall. In 2013, that number rose to more than 31,000, an increase of about 82 percent.

Christiansen said VU “employed much more of a pipeline development strategy” with in- creased emphasis on admissions officers working the West Coast, college fairs, a fly-in program (through which VU hosts high school guidance counselors) and the buying of names of those students who take the Pre-SAT test (after which, VU places the names on a recruiting list).

“We are helping make a better fit for those [Western region] students who didn’t know about us previously,” Christiansen said.

Vanderbilt is not alone, as many of the city’s other four-year universities have seen increases in interest from students in the West.

For example, Belmont University had 73 Californians apply for admission in 2010, with 20 who eventually enrolled, according to Michael Waters, associate director of admissions. In 2011, applications increased to 114; in 2012, to 166; and in 2013, to 212.

At Lipscomb University, applications from California-based students are up 63 percent compared to the number from this time last year. And LU is up 22 percent in the number of students who have been accepted/admitted from California compared to this time last year.

"Over the last couple of years, we have strategically increased our visibility in and marketing to prospective students in California, among other western states,” said Rick Holaway, LU senior director of admissions. “We have focused on identifying students who are good candidates for us in those areas and have developed a strategic communication and marketing campaign to target them. We have also seen similar growth in the western states in general, particularly in Arizona, Oregon and Washington."

At Tennessee State University, California-based student applications for the 2013-14 academic year are up by 19 percent compared to the numbers for the 2012-13 year, according to Richard DelaHaya, the university’s director of media relations.

One theory as to why the Nashville-area universities are seeing such interest from Californians centers on the fact that in many cases attending out-of-state institutions does not cost much more for the students than attending public universities in their home state.

California or not, university student recruitment has become a business of sorts, with branding, budgets and target strategies all in mix. And at Vanderbilt, that business has been elevated in recent years.

VU’s Christiansen said the university remains strong in its recruitment of students from the South, Mid-Atlantic, New England and Texas. As to specific numbers for the class that enrolled last fall, 9.5 percent of the students are from Tennessee, which has the highest representation. Other states with significant representation included, alphabetically, Georgia, Illinois, New York and Texas.

Whether California eventually cracks Vanderbilt’s “top five” is uncertain. Regardless, Christiansen said VU is having success with its student recruitment and admission efforts, noting that roughly 13 percent of the students who applied for the 2013-14 academic year will be admitted.

“This admit rate will put us approximately in the top 15 for selectivity in the nation,” he said.