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Undergrads reach out to prospective students
March 23, 1998

Most of the buildings on campus were dark, the street lights were glowing and, aside from just a handful of people, faculty and staff had long since headed home for the day.

But in a back room of the Admissions Building, the chatter was incessant and punctuated by bursts of laughter. The STARS had come out.

STARS - Student Telecounseling Admissions Representatives - is a new initiative introduced in January to help boost UConn's freshman yield - the number of students who accept offers of admission. Twenty-three STARS have been hired and, from 5-9 p.m., Sunday through Thursday, they call high school students who have applied to or sought information about UConn. The calls are informational, chatty and, judging by the sounds emanating from the room, enjoyable for both parties.

"I really enjoy it. I've never done anything like this before, but I like talking on the phone, and I enjoy trying to persuade, to recruit, other kids to UConn," says Melba Mebane, a seventh semester senior from Hamden.

"A lot of them are really excited to hear from us, and relieved when they find out we can answer their questions."

Mebane and her colleagues, outfitted with headphones and working with a computer program called Dialogue Plus, are practicing what Dolan Evanovich, associate provost for enrollment management, calls "the incremental nudge," making a phone call to UConn applicants who may - or may not - have UConn on the top of their list. With just a little nudge, Evanovich hopes they at least take the next step in the process, whether that's asking for more information, taking a trip to Storrs, or actually sending in a deposit.

Once the program starts a full cycle - the current January start falls in the midst of the enrollment cycle - there will be five to seven "nudges" to every student in the database each year, Evanovich says.

The $42,000 program is part of the University's effort to increase the quality and quantity of students attending UConn. That effort was bolstered when Chancellor Mark Emmert identified the Office of Enrollment Management as a priority and increased its budget last August.

"The University has among its strategic intents enrolling the most qualified students available, and fostering a sense of community. These goals come together in the telecounseling program," Emmert says. "Prospective students now hear not only from faculty members but also from their peers, students who are living the University of Connecticut experience and who can share insights and provide answers that can come only from being a University undergraduate."

Evanovich has high praise for the STARS. "To hear their smiles on the phone, hear how proud they are of UConn and how well they express themselves about the value and quality of the education they receive, is wonderful," he says. "I'm very confident this program will contribute to meeting our goal of increasing next year's enrollment by 5 percent."

One reason for confidence is that Evanovich and Staci Dupre, who coordinates the program, hired great students. Another part of it is Dupre herself, who motivates the workers daily and tries, as much as possible, to build each worker's call sheet in a way that mirrors their interests or experiences. Mebane, for instance, is a transfer student from the University of Rhode Island majoring in sport, leisure and exercise sciences. She ran track at URI and is attending UConn on a scholarship. Consequently, on this night, she has a list of calls that include transfer students, students who indicated an interest in sport, leisure and exercise sciences, and students offered a leadership scholarship.

Danielle O'Leary of Prospect, another STAR, is a freshman - a point she makes early in each call. Not coincidentally, the questions she fields revolve around the transition from high school to college - is UConn huge? What do you like? What is there to do in Storrs? How large are the classes? Is it easy to get involved.

"I was surprised at first. I didn't think they'd want to talk, but when I tell them I'm a freshman, they seem relieved and really open up. Their parents often have questions too, but they focus more on financial aid, campus safety, and stuff like that. I think it's great. It's really interesting talking to so many different people," says O'Leary.

Evanovich, who also used the software program at Arizona State and Eastern Michigan universities, says Dialogue Plus is one of several programs on the market for tracking and telephoning potential students. Until recently, the programs were used primarily by small private colleges, because large schools didn't think they could reach the thousands of students they were recruiting effectively. Today, that myth is falling by the wayside. Evanovich estimates about 200 schools use a calling regimen to recruit students.

"We had a great experience (with the program) at ASU and Eastern Michigan," Evanovich says. "This takes a large, impersonal university and makes it very small and personal. The one-on-one relationship with the students helps break down the perception that we're so large. It helps make us a top choice."

With UConn's current STARS averaging about 30 calls each per night, the effort has already created more than 5,000 "touches." Ultimately, Evanovich plans to hire enough STARS to contact each high school student in the database at least five times, starting in September when calls are placed to students who have sought information about UConn. That call tries to nudge the student to follow through on their request by applying for admission or visiting campus.

Other calls, roughly scheduled for January, April, June and August, are timed to coincide with different areas of the admissions process, from the congratulatory note to accepted students to reminders that orientation and, later, events connected to the Weeks of Welcome (WOW) are approaching. During the course of a complete cycle, Evanovich says, the STARS should be making 25,000-30,000 calls annually.

"Our phone bill and postage costs are going up, and printing costs, too, but we expected that," Evanovich says, adding that, on the other hand, the program "lets us expand our primary recruiting base to secondary and even tertiary markets in a cost-effective way. Otherwise our ability to follow up on potential students from, say, Washington, D.C., is limited because we can't afford to keep going back down there. STARS lets us keep tabs on that student."

The program is also providing the University with a huge data set of general information about what makes students choose - or refuse - offers from UConn and other schools.

"Part of the beauty of this use of technology is that we can record all the findings of all our calls. We can track why they are choosing or not choosing UConn, and the reasons behind their decisions," says Evanovich. "It will help us plan our efforts strategically, put together a great base of market research, and allow us to make data-driven decisions on our enrollment management function."

Richard Veilleux