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UMM: Consistent, clear message helps enrollment

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By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Efforts to cultivate a "brand" for the University of Minnesota, Morris and showcase its unique assets appear to be paying off.

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UMM enrollment is up 6 percent to a total of 1,705 students, putting the university on the right path to its goal of achieving enrollment of 2,000 students by 2013.

UMM's "A Renewable, Sustainable Education" - both as an ideal and a slogan - are beginning to resonate on campus and among prospective students and parents, said Christine Mahoney, UMM's director of communications.

"It's not just about energy and wind turbines," Mahoney said. "It really comes from the liberal arts. Students see how education will sustain itself, renew itself, over their lives."

UMM for years has been ranked among the country's top public liberal arts universities, and prides itself on efforts to become a leader in "green" energy and technology. Its students are known for high academic achievement, community and university involvement and, as a university press release noted, eclectic interests.

"We serve a unique niche," Mahoney said. "We tell students that if you are willing to think, create and act, this is the place for you."

The percentage of incoming freshmen graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class grew from 27.8 percent in 2008 to 29.6 percent in 2009. The percentage of students of color increased by nearly one percent compared to last year and the average ACT score held steady at 25.

In fall 2009, more than 60 percent of entering high school students received merit scholarship support from UMM, and about half the students live on campus, which represents an increase of about 8 percent over fall 2008.

So communicating those assets and mission to students in a highly competitive college market became a priority, both on campus and off, and it started with officials being straightforward in talking about what UMM is and what it isn't, said Bryan Herrmann, UMM's director of admissions.

"We can't tell people there are palm trees here and then they get here and . . .," Herrmann said with a smile. "There is so much out there for students that we had to clear up our message in the public. The message has to be clear so it cuts through the clutter."

The consistency of the message had to be emphasized on campus, as well, Mahoney said, "so that once we get students to visit, once they come here, it all makes sense to them."

UMM's enrollment increase was 90 students for 2009-2010 and was split evenly among incoming high school students, transfer students and students who might have left the school in the past staying on to continue their studies. A large number of the incoming students already have taken college-credit classes in high school, meaning that many fit the UMM academic profile.

But UMM wasn't always sure the best way to reach out to them, Mahoney said.

"I don't think we knew our DNA, our brand, internally," she said. "We got a handle on what the Morris brand was. Now, we're talking about this place in a way that when students get here, they say, 'OK, I get it.' "

The message in "A Renewable, Sustainable Education" has resonated with parents. Unlike their generation or those before them, students today will likely have three, four or more different jobs in their life. And in some cases, significantly different jobs, Herrmann said.

"It's very possible that, in 10 years (in the workforce), you're going to have to change what you're doing," he said.

"Some students today are being trained for jobs that don't exist," Mahoney said.

What UMM is accomplishing in terms of recruitment and retention isn't the result of a magical formula. A campaign takes time to develop and build, and the efforts must be on-going, with faculty and staff working "on the same page." Mahoney said, noting that customer service is as important in educational settings as it is in business.

"A lot of things go into the results we saw this fall," she said.

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