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How HBU is Winning the Race for Students

How HBU is Winning the Race for Students


At a time when many schools are facing enrollment challenges, a school in Texas is successfully winning the race for students.

The competition to attract students is fierce, and the stakes are high. With plenty of challenges at the forefront, schools must think differently—and more strategically—about how to attract and retain students. By embracing an entrepreneurial mindset, business officers can navigate this changing marketplace by aligning their strategy with the enrollment office, collaborating on the strategic direction of the institution, and refining the recruitment process. Through a combination of innovation, entrepreneurship, and differentiation, colleges and universities can influence the decisions of tomorrow’s students.  

One school that is successfully navigating this difficult landscape is Houston Baptist University, a private liberal arts school in Texas. “One of the things that we have done is be educationally entrepreneurial in our efforts and our philosophies,” said James Steen, Vice President of Enrollment Management at HBU. By working closely with other business officers at the university, Steen and his team have experienced unprecedented growth despite three common challenges that are shared by many other schools: flat or declining enrollment, economic uncertainty, and balancing affordability with sustainability.

  • "Flat is the new up": Spring enrollment dropped 1.9%, marking marking the 6th consecutive decrease1.
  • State of the Economy: Economic uncertainty placed financial strains on families, impacting decisions and the need for aid2.
  • Affordability vs. Sustainability: Tuition discount rates are at all time high of 49%, which has been increasing since 20083.

Despite facing these market challenges, HBU has risen to be a prominent university in Houston.  From 2011 to 2016, the university has experienced unprecedented growth in freshman engagement with 3,160  students enrolled in the fall 2015 semester. It has also expiereinced a 118% increase in Freshman over the last 10 years, a 27% increase in inquiries, 56% increase in applications, and a 12% increase in deposits.

Houston Baptist’s success is rooted in the desire to build a reputation of being a comprehensive national university, firmly rooted in Christian faith. While staying true to its core mission and values, HBU has been able to evolve and innovate through its strategic vision. This vision serves as the compass driving the mission that is central to the recruitment efforts of HBU. At the heart of HBU’s success are a few key components:

A Data-Driven Strategy

"You have to know who your admits are and where they are coming from," said Steen.

HBU constantly monitors and manages its funnel, evaluating each stage of the process and identifying where improvements can be made. They have taken a comprehensive top–to–bottom approach with their enrollment to successfully move students through the funnel. which includes asking the following questions:

  • What are we doing to impact and grow our inquiries?
  • What are we doing to bring in more applicants than last year?
  • How do we get more (and better) admits into the funnel?
  • What are we doing to get the admits to make a deposit?
  • How can we help our current students be more successful?

Differentiation Through Data

“There are so many ways to leverage data. Good point–in–time data and year–to–date comparisons are very useful,” said Steen.

HBU uses the data collected to know who their primary audience is and why students choose them. It can then use that information to tailor the student experience. It also tailors the process to meet student’s needs. Innovative initiatives, such as mobile targeting, helps HBU reach an audience that is on-the-go.

They also tailor the process to meet student’s needs. Through trying new things, such as mobile targeting, HBU has been able to reach an audience that is on-the-go, leading to a 59.7% mobile recruitment response rate, with over 3,000 mobile applications submitted in 2015.

Program Diversification

"We have revised the core curriculum to make it more strategic for transfers and online students," says Steen.

HBU now has an impressive and diverse program portfolio including 40 undergraduate programs, 9 graduate programs, 1 doctoral program, more than 70 clubs and organizations and 17 Division 1 sports teams.

Entrepreneurial Innovation

"One of the things we have done (or try to do) is to be educationally entrepreneurial in our efforts, and philosophies," said Steen.

HBU is constantly striving to improve by bringing entrepreneurial thinking to the forefornt. This  innovation has led to impressive results, with a recent example being its 7,000 followers on Raise.Me, a website for students to earn micro-scholarships for college, while they are still in highschool.

Steen adds, that in order to be successful and compete for the next generation, "We had to adapt to be more intentional... We had to continually grow and adapt to who we are and to also help new students connect. It's not one big thing ... it is a thousand little things along the way."

Source1: “Current Term Enrollment Report – Spring 2015.” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 13 May 2015.
Source2: “The Financial Downturn and Its Impact on Higher Education Institutions.” NACUBO and The Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities
Source3: 2016 Tuition Discounting Study. NACUBO, 16 May 2016.

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