Around the time prospective students were deciding where to enroll this year, the State University of New York at Oswego sent them some letters.
One, for those considering the communications school, was from Al Roker. “Al Roker here, SUNY Oswego Class of 1976. (Yes, I am older than your parents),” he began, before talking about his career as weather anchor and co-host of the Today show. He wrote that he attended Oswego without ever having seen it, or seen any of the Great Lakes (Oswego is on Lake Ontario). He was a first-generation student. Why Oswego? “Because they accepted me!!”
But the value of his Oswego education, he wrote, was much more. “Every day … I use what I learned at Oswego State.” He cited a late professor who was a mentor and the emphasis on “hands-on learning.” And he mentioned having returned to Oswego to co-teach a course.
Like many colleges, Oswego turned to alumni to help in the recruitment process. In addition to Roker, Oswego sent letters to potential business students from Bob Moritz, the global chair of PricewaterhouseCoopers and a member of the Class of 1985.
But Oswego also relied on alumni who are not famous. Those considering the education school heard from Rachel Edic, who graduated in 2017 and earned a master’s degree the next year. She described how her Oswego education prepared her to teach at the North Colonie Central School District in New York. She described joining clubs in addition to her courses. She also said that when she sees someone in an Oswego hoodie, “there is an instant connection.”
The letters from alumni were one part of an “everyone’s involved” approach to admissions at Oswego. Generally, the years since the pandemic hit have been tough for regional public universities (outside of California’s). Regional universities like Oswego recruit primarily in their home state, which in Oswego’s case is losing population. The declines at Oswego started before the pandemic but grew during the last two years.
There are several things to note on the chart above. First, note the size of the declines at Oswego in applications. From 2018 to 2021, applications dropped from 13,314 to 10,401. Second, it’s important to note that Oswego, like most four-year colleges, admits most of those who apply. In fact, the percentage of admitted students is greater this year (81 percent) than in the recent past. The reason this year for the university’s success is the increased yield.
In 2020, 967 students had made a deposit to enroll by mid-May. In 2021, 1,062 students did. This year 1,571 students did, an increase of nearly 50 percent in one year. At Oswego, and at most colleges, admissions is about getting the applicant pool high enough so that an increase in yield is possible. (Oswego has the dormitory space to house all the students, so that was not a problem.) Thirty-five percent of the students were members of minority groups.
Mary C. Toale, officer in charge (SUNY language for acting president) at Oswego, said the key to the university’s admissions success was “our all-in” approach. “It’s the entire campus,” she said.
Oswego draws students from all over New York State (in addition to a small contingent from abroad).
The university’s approach is a mix of in-person and email (or other digital) events. Toale also said “very direct communication with parents” is important.
Also key was a three-week period when no fees were charged for applications. Oswego received 3,000 during that time period.
Another big emphasis was on going to students and parents, especially in New York City. Toale said she thought of recruitment not just being of students, “but the recruitment of families.”
She said materials were addressed to students, but with the idea that many parents would be reading them as well.
And for students who wanted, there were free bus trips to Oswego. (Oswego is near the southeast corner of Lake Ontario, north of Syracuse.)
Oswego also changed the timing of its acceptance letters and its financial aid awards. Acceptance letters are now under rolling admissions and start in November. Aid letters are also coming out in November and December instead of January or February.
Scott Furlong, provost and vice president for academic affairs and enrollment, said summer melt is an issue, but the university is continuing to accept applicants to make up for any losses. At its heaviest impact, summer melt has cost Oswego up to 10 percent of students who committed to attend. He also said a range of programs linking the incoming students to current students are designed to minimize the impact of summer melt.
Faculty members and deans of academic subjects were also recruited to help.
Kristin Croyle, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said she was thrilled to help in part because she arrived in 2019 (before the pandemic), so this was the first admissions cycle in which she could participate. She traveled for events in New York City and on Long Island. (She said the deans focused on the longer trips, as faculty members needed to be on campus for classes.)
Parents and students were interested in college costs, of course, but parents especially wanted to know about students’ prospects for internships and jobs after graduation.
Murat Yasar, associate professor of history, traveled to Rochester and also participated in campus lunches for students who had been admitted.
He found that careers were a regular topic with parents. Many parents were reassured that most history majors do not go on to graduate school in history but work for businesses or in education. While most people in academe know that, it was news to many he spoke to.
Yasar also found that because of his participation, it seemed to dawn on parents that faculty members are very involved with their students.
Kelly Roe, professor and chair of graphic design at Oswego, said parents asked questions about mental health issues in addition to career questions.
Roe said that faculty members were happy to contribute to the effort, viewing it as a way to assure that they will continue to have jobs teaching a range of courses. “It’s a win-win,” Roe said.