PR Class Researches Freshman Enrollment Spike

Students (from left) McKenzie Mathewson, Carley Dole and Chloe Gerathy present on behalf of the class
Students (from left) McKenzie Mathewson, Carley Dole and Chloe Gerathy present on behalf of the class

An NMU public relations class completed an online survey of this year’s first-time freshmen and facilitated focus groups to identify the leading factors that convinced students to enroll at Northern. Based on the results and a review of research on Generation Z, the PR research methods class has proposed several marketing ideas to enhance recruiting and increase enrollment. Professor Jes Thompson and her students presented their findings to the NMU Board of Trustees’ Academic Affairs Committee on Thursday.

Data from the survey of first-time freshmen, with 445 respondents, showed that the top three reasons they chose to attend NMU were: desired academic program; cost of tuition; and size of the institution. In the focus group results, distance from hometown—with Marquette’s remoteness viewed as a positive—ranked second, between academic program and cost.

The focus group transcripts also revealed the top three perceptions first-time freshmen had of NMU had before enrolling: low name recognition, nature-based learning and low academic standards.

“From this initial reputation analysis, it is clear that there is room for NMU to enhance its academic reputation and marketing of the academic rigor that students experience in the classroom,” the research report stated. “More than 84 percent of survey respondents said the instruction they are receiving is excellent or good, while 82 percent are either satisfied or very satisfied with the academic advising they are receiving.”

The PR class recommends the university maintain and advertise its relatively low tuition to emphasize the “value” students get for their investment. It also suggests that NMU increase social media marketing to Gen Z students (those born between 1995-2010) and elevate the quality and quantity of promotions that describe academic programs.

Focus group comments related to the latter included the following: “[NMU] has so much to offer and we are not really showing that to prospective undergrads … The reputation is that Northern is for students who don’t try hard in school or for students who aren’t good enough to get in somewhere else. That’s what people hear before they hear about how amazing it is … We are focusing on all of the great nature around us that we are missing the greatness in our academics and the degrees people earn here.”

Still, the proximity of Lake Superior and the pristine natural environment are routinely cited as appealing aspects of Northern. The PR students found those qualities are strongly promoted in NMU advertising and marketing materials. Within the bounds of campus, the new residence halls, John X. Jamrich Hall and the New Science Facility were mentioned multiple times as relevant to students’ decisions to enroll.

Enrollment at NMU had declined since 2010, according to the report, but the number of first-time freshmen increased this fall. Motivated to research why that happened, the PR class administered a 56-question survey and facilitated five focus groups.

The top ideas expressed by current students for increasing enrollment at NMU were: more university representatives at Midwestern high schools; a greater emphasis on the campus and academics in marketing; more stories about student success; and added platforms for current students to interact with potential applicants.

The results of the PR research methods class study were intended only for scholarly purposes, but will be utilized by NMU Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment for future collaborations with the class, and by the Marketing and Communications Office.



Prepared By
Kristi Evans
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