"October is a key month for us."
That's what Sean Culhane, admissions counselor at SMSU, says. And he should know.
Last week, SMSU hosted Mustang Days, a two-day visit day carved out around MEA week. It was an opportunity for high school juniors and seniors to come to campus and learn more about the university as part of the college decision-making process. Earlier this week, SMSU hosted a college fair, with more than 80 two- and four-year institutions represented in the R/A Facility. By 9:30 a.m., said Culhane, there were about 750 high school students from the region in that building.
Culhane' is responsible for the 19-county area in southwest Minnesota. A year ago, he was responsible for the Twin Cities area. Some new faces have been added to the Office of Admission in the last two months, and some reshuffling of responsibilities has occurred.
"October is a big month for college fairs, and we have a lot of students coming to campus," he said. "It's mostly high school juniors and seniors. This is the time they are thinking about their college choice, and their parents are a big part of that process."
Culhane will be visiting most high schools in the region at some point. During those stops, he has to have his elevator speech down pat. "You have a small window of time to make them want to come see you," he said. "You have to engage the students, give them a reason to come to campus. You might only talk to them from one to five minutes, maximum."
It's the hope of all admissions counselors to get the students on campus. "When the come, they are an engaged audience. They have made the investment to come to campus," he said. "That's when we want to make their visit as informative as we can. We want them to want to go to school here."
When recruiting, Culhane knows he's talking to the student, and also the parents. "It's a family recruiting visit," he said. "At the end of the day, mom and dad have a huge voice in what that student is going to do. We want to make sure everyone in the family feels like this is home, and everyone sees their son or daughter going here."
Culhane is a 2005 alumnus with a degree in elementary education. His final day as a student teacher was on a Friday, and he started in the Office of Admission the next Monday. He worked in the office as a student, and he also had an internship there.
Getting a student on campus is paramount, he said. "Our odds are pretty good then," he said. "Our campus, and the people here, sell the university. The reason we go to fairs and high school visits is to convince potential students to come see us."
Once on campus, every effort is made to connect the student with a professor in their desired area of study. "That's where we're different than other universities," said Culhane. "We want to give visitor a personal experience. We want them to feel the sense of community that we're known for."
Culhane estimates he'll visit 65 high schools during the year. He'll call a couple of weeks in advance to set up the appointments. He likes the fact that smaller high schools work hard to set up appointments. "I was at MACCRAY the other day, and they went on the loudspeaker and announced there was a representative from SMSU that was available. Twenty-five students came in to talk to me," he said. "You don't see that in the Twin Cities."
SMSU is growing in popularity with regional students, he feels. "We've gained a lot of momentum in recent years," he said. "A lot of kids' parents are alumni, and they like the fact that 85 percent of our students receive a good financial aid and scholarship package. A lot of them have been on campus for events, so they're familiar with us."
Culhane likes "the randomness of the job. I'll be at a college fair one day, visit five high schools the next. Today (last week) I'm speaking to Sleepy Eye students. There's a lot of late nights and early mornings, but I like that. That's why I like my job, I get to deal with people on a daily basis."
Students today do their homework, he said. "They want to know what it costs, what scholarship money is available. They weigh their options. College is at an all-time high for costs, and they want to know what is different here than other places. It is becoming cost versus return."
SMSU was recently honored by two groups for its affordability and return on investment, and Culhane said that both students and parents pay attention to that. "These are rough economic times," he said. "The fact we've been recognized for our affordability and value is important to students today. That's important in the decision-making process."