On June 1, Brian O’Rourke began his role as the Vice President for Enrollment, Marketing and Communications to breathe new life into Valparaiso University Admissions.
The key challenge in improving enrollment comes from altering the way Valpo is presented to high school students.
“There's two parts to that: telling the story for students earlier in the process. So frankly, you know, students that are earlier in high school, you know, ninth, 10th, 11th graders, and helping them understand Valpo and understand who we are and what we are about and what we stand for,” said O’Rourke. “And then also having that carry through, you know, obviously senior year, so it's about telling the story to a wider audience earlier. And then it's also about just discovering ways that we can tell our story, we think more effectively.”
What is the Valpo story? To O’Rourke, it’s an emphasis on community, student testimonials and the dedication of faculty and staff.
“We know from a variety of different sources of data that one of the primary components of Valpo that makes us unique is how deeply our faculty care about students, and how much our faculty care about student success and really wants you not only to have a wonderful Valpo experience, but graduate and find a career in a job that you're passionate about, and frankly, to go out and build the world, you know, that you're going to live in. And a lot of private colleges and universities talk about the small campus environment and personal attention. It means something different here. It just does. We want to make sure that we tell that story the right way,” O’Rourke said.
Tied into his work with marketing and communications, the university’s rebrand to the Beacons has become an important part of reflecting Valpo’s identity to prospective students.
“What we want to make sure [is] that students understand our identity, and our university, our university motto that's on our seal, ‘In thy light we see light.’ We very much believe that our students are beacons, that our university are beacons of success and beacons of truth and stand for something. There's a reason that we selected the Beacons as our nickname that is very true to our core identity,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke and other university staff are aiming for marked growth in the upcoming year. With enrollment numbers down due to the pandemic, the aim is to get close to or above former admission rates.
“So we enrolled just over 600 freshmen in 2021 and right around 130 transfer students. For the 2022 cycle, our target is 730 freshmen and 150 transfer students. So you know, pretty aggressive growth in one year as the initial growth target for the new enrollment plan,” O’Rourke said. “From there, we want to expand to you know, final numbers over the next two to three years after that, that are closer to 800 first year students and 200 transfer students that we believe is sort of the the point at which Valparaiso University will be robust and vibrant and have, you know, a really large number of students in our undergraduate programs while still maintaining our core identity [of] our small field and our personal attention. So right now that's sort of our immediate growth plan.”
A tactic being considered is to expand the number of applications without sacrificing academic quality.
“One of our core goals is to increase applications. We are not going to be expanding the admit rate, we are not going to be compromising our admission standards. We are very proud of our academic rigor,” O’Rourke said.
An important aspect of the communication system is ensuring that the concerns, questions and needs of new students, both freshmen and transfer students, are being heard and addressed to ensure success.
“Very different communication plans, very different discussion points, all leading to the same goal which is [that] we want to enroll students who are going to graduate. It doesn't do us any good to increase the size of our freshmen and transfer populations coming into the university if they don't graduate,” O’Rourke said. “We want to make sure not only that we're admitting students that we believe are going to succeed, but that when they arrive, they're getting the right information and the right tools to, you know, progress to graduation.”
In order to increase diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on campus, the university has begun partnering with programs specifically aimed at getting underrepresented students admitted into and graduating from college successfully.
“We've entered into a formal partnership with the Indiana Latino Institute (ILI), which will be a pipeline to help attract more Latino students from the state of Indiana, into Valparaiso and different opportunities there. We have different various programs in development along those lines that, because they're not quite final yet, I can't really speak publicly about them. But you will have by early spring, we're going to have four to six new partnerships, like the ILI partnership that is specifically committed to attracting a more diverse population to develop. I would also say that we are a part of an organization which was recently announced. Greenlight is the name of the project in Valparaiso [which] is one of, I believe it was, seven institutions dedicated exactly to this purpose and finding opportunities to increase access to private education for historically underrepresented populations,” O’Rourke said.
Despite the decrease in college enrollment throughout the nation and additional challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, O’Rourke remains confident that Valpo presents a unique story that many universities lack.
“I think Valpo is one of the few institutions in the country that really does have an outstanding story to tell in a way that will continue to attract new students and will be insulated from some of the challenges that higher education is going to experience over the next 10 to 15 years. I just frankly came here because I want to be part of telling that story and part of helping students’ experience,” O’Rourke said.