Bucking trend, USC increases high school visits

As university admissions offices nationwide cut back on visits to high schools as a way of dealing with budgetary constraints, USC is taking the opposite route and increasing its number of visits in hopes of making a personal connection with more prospective students.

Timothy Brunold, the associate dean and director of undergraduate admission, said USC admissions is increasing its high school visits by 50 percent. This year, USC will conduct 1,400 high school visits compared to 850 visits during the 2008-2009 school year.

“USC wants to continue to aggressively recruit incoming freshmen, and we feel like we have a very good opportunity right now to continue building on the gains we’ve made in the last several years,” Brunold said. “We know there are still a great many students in different parts of the country and different parts of the world who would present a very good match for USC.”

But in a time of shrinking endowments and tight budgets, this uptick in high school visits goes against the grain.

Nancy Heinisch, career adviser at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, Calif., said the school will only host 15 colleges on its campus this September and October, compared to 25 in 2008 and 24 in 2007.

“Most schools are cutting back dramatically on high school visits. They told us at the UC Conference the other day that it’s pure economics: ‘We’re not coming to your schools,’” said Dan Blanchfield, a Saugus High School counselor.

It’s not just the UC schools that are cutting back. The Yale Daily News reported this week that Yale’s admissions office will be decreasing their number of high school visits. The admissions offices at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College are also reducing presentations at high schools to save money.

Brunold could not say how much USC will spend on admissions visits this year because of unpredictable factors such as gas prices, mileage reimbursements and the cost of flights. He said, however, the expenditure will definitely be more than the $250,000 annual budget of past years.

While Brunold acknowledged that USC has been practicing financial prudence in other ways, such as curtailing hiring, he said increasing high school visits is a “strategic priority for the university.” He said the university believes, by looking at where USC stands versus its competitors, that this is the right place to be investing.

“Given the current marketplace and given the current strength of USC, this certainly wouldn’t be the time to let up,” Brunold said. “We know, the data shows, that high school visits are definitely a strong determining factor in whether a student applies to a university.”

The undergraduate admissions office, Brunold said, has been lucky in its ability to increase its travel budget while that of other universities is shrinking.

“What colleges and universities have to do is take limited resources, because everyone has limited resources, and decide how they’re going to spend those resources. And that’s a challenge faced by every single university,” Brunold said. “We’re just very fortunate that we’ve been given more of an opportunity to do more of these school visits.”

In addition to 12 staffers who travel part-time to visit high schools and attend regional recruiting events, Brunold’s team is made up of about 25 people whose primary job will be to visit high schools throughout 40 states and eight countries.

The team will strategically target cities and states that Brunold described as having “untapped potential,” such as Texas, Florida, Boston, Georgia, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC.

Even within California, Blanchfield said he thinks it is still in USC’s best interest to continue its high school visits. Students who were once in the audience for one of USC’s high school visits agree.

Cassie Rice, a recent USC graduate, said during her senior year at Beverly Hills High School, she was absolutely convinced that even though her father had attended USC, it was not the school for her.

“What’s interesting is that the fall that I applied to USC, I went to some big recruiting event at USC. During and after the recruiting event, I swore that there was no way I would go to USC,” Rice said. “Then, after the USC admissions visit … I decided to go to USC.”

Though some of the UCs are switching gears and turning to less expensive recruitment methods such as “webinars,” where prospective students can come online and interactively ask questions to recruiters, Blanchfield said it is in USC’s best interest to continue its visits.

And with the number of students entering college expected to decline in the next few years, Brunold said it is more important than ever to make that personal connection with potential students.