‘Reaching’ for enrollment despite decline

Youngstown State University’s enrollment may have crashed 4.3 percent, but without a combination of marketing and public relations efforts, the decline could have been worse.

A media blitz of television ads and YSU’s first Crash Day — a daylong event that gives high school juniors and seniors the college experience — broke the fall of the full-time equivalent enrollment, which cost the university $3.7 million.

Crash Day hosted 225 prospective students, 102 of whom were planning to attend college this fall. Of those, 82 were registered at YSU through the 14th day of classes.

Tysa Egleton, associate registrar and director of Crash Day, said the goal was to reinvent YSU in the eyes of potential students.

“We really wanted to turn the negative connotations with YSU into positives,” Egleton said. “We tried to showcase the university and wanted people to try us on for size.”

Because of the event’s success, Crash Day will replace the quarterly open houses. Spending, on average, $450,000 a year, Mark Van Tilburg, executive director of marketing and communications, said he wants to maintain the emphasis on academic rigor and student-faculty relationships that YSU has to offer.

During fiscal year 2013, Kent State University will spend $1.5 million on marketing initiatives.

Emily Vincent, director of university media relations at KSU, said the university will reap the benefits and is expected to announce an enrollment increase.

“Spending this money on marketing helps to create an awareness for prospective students and reminds parents to inquire, schedule a visit or visit our university website,” Vincent said. “We try to make our ads very attractive and really try to connect emotionally to stand out from other universities and institutions.”

Jack Fahey, vice president for student affairs, said marketing efforts typically take several years to bear significant fruit, though.

While the majority of YSU students come from Mahoning and Trumbull counties, Van Tilburg said annual market research shows that YSU’s best competitive advantage lies in western Pennsylvania.

“It’s a lot about awareness and perception,” Van Tilburg said. “But we’re frontloading and spending a lot more money in the fall, a time where higher achieving high school students are making the early decision.”

Students enrolled from western Pennsylvania receive a price advantage, paying only $105 more than Ohio residents.

“We’ve been tracking this for three years,” Van Tilburg said. “We found it beneficial to put more emphasis on advertising YSU in western Pennsylvania and de-emphasize spending in Cleveland and Akron, where competition is heavier.”

He mentioned that the sweet spot for adults and nontraditional students, however, still remains in Youngstown. Marketing the university to adults has been more difficult lately because many are going back to work.

YSU’s department of marketing and communications works on creative aspects such as the website, social media and television ads.

Van Tilburg said the department just started a major collaboration with KDKA, a broadcast media company in Pittsburgh. Along with running advertisements on KDKA, ads are placed on Comcast through mid-December.

“For one day a month, YSU advertisements take over the Infiniti Pittsburgh website also. Within the ads are links to admissions and the YSU homepage,” Van Tilburg said.

He said continuous video production is underway. Two telecommunication interns are working on video production for the YSU football games and other campus activities. A photographer and an associate editor for new social media are working to enhance efforts through Facebook and Twitter.

Other efforts include banners in the Pittsburgh Airport and a recent partnership with the Covelli Centre, where YSU logos are painted on the walls.

Additional ads can be found downtown all the way up to Hazel Street near the Williamson College of Business Administration. The banners hanging on the walls of Stambaugh Stadium were funded through the YSU Foundation.

“We also have to sell the city and engage with the city,” Van Tilburg said. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out. We really transformed our operation here. We needed to evolve in that way. We want to continue and accelerate all of our paid and unpaid marketing efforts without abandoning the primary local market.”

Van Tilburg added that the advertising theme at YSU is important and intentional. “The ‘great university within reach’ campaign is a triple entendre because YSU is geographically reachable, financially reachable and it offers so many programs,” he said. “We wanted to pivot on the word ‘reach.’”