How a Winona Lake college is making a splash at high school visits

The 2020-2021 admissions cycle is one that the college admissions playbook will be reeling from for years. In the midst of this year where each day had to be taken in stride, Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., found itself at the precipice of innovation, adaptability, and ingenuity.

“Doing something is better than doing nothing,” was the tagline Executive Vice President, Drew Flamm, Ph.D., frequently recited to those under his leadership. And the motto did not fail them.

Grace swiftly shifted its entire visit structure to an online format in a matter of a few days following the shut-down, becoming one of the first schools nationally to pivot to virtual visits.

Grace College Admissions reinvented its strategy when COVID-19 turned the enrollment playbook on its head.

On March 13, Grace announced its campus closure. Just six days later, on March 19, the school rolled out its one-on-one virtual admissions meetings, and on March 27, Grace hosted its first-ever Lancer Day Streaming Visit Experience, complete with a golf-cart campus tour, a staff/faculty panel, and an admissions presentation.

Mark Pohl, Ph.D., Associate Vice President of Admissions Management and Financial Aid says he can’t praise his team enough for their quick turnaround following the shutdown.

“Everyone took the changes in stride, and the first few weeks of virtual visits alone, our admissions counselors met with more than 68 students,” he says.

Grace College raised funds to help incoming students close the financial gaps caused by COVID-19.

Right around that time, Grace announced its new, test-optional policy for admissions as well as its intent to bring students back to campus in the fall. Shortly after the announcement, Grace launched its “Bring Them Back” campaign—a rallying cry to the Grace College community to help bring back returning and incoming freshmen to campus for the fall. The campaign resulted in more than $190,000 in raised funds. A portion of the money was specifically set aside to help incoming students close the financial gaps caused by COVID-19.

That summer, admissions counselors, board members, and other Grace College staff hand-delivered “Congrats Grad” yard signs to those living in surrounding areas including South Bend, Fort Wayne, and Indianapolis. This personalized touch helped amp up excitement for incoming freshmen about the school year ahead—even in spite of the challenges that came in the midst of a global pandemic.

And when Welcome Weekend rolled around in August, Grace College’s increased efforts paid off.

Grace welcomed a near record-setting incoming class of 459 students: the second-largest class in school history.

“It was truly a miraculous year for admissions,” Pohl says. “But we couldn’t take our foot off of the gas.”

A socially-distanced photo of the 2020 incoming class that represents the campus theme "Journey."

The Grace College admissions team continued to innovate through the fall semester.

Known as the college on the “midwest coast,” sitting adjacent to 562-acre Winona Lake, Grace students often take advantage of kayaking, paddleboarding, and water tubing behind the Grace College speedboat when they aren’t in class. The admissions team has marketed the lake in recent years by offering prospective students boat rides, renting kayaks and paddleboards at its PreUnion event for deposited students, and launching its Thursday evening “Sunset Tour” visit option.

After COVID hit, the admissions team brainstormed about how they could communicate these unique lake-side opportunities with prospective students even if they couldn’t physically come to campus.

“We thought, ‘If we can’t bring the students to the lake, we’ll bring the lake to them,’” says Pohl.

Prospective students get a photo with the Grace College boat.

Grace loaded its speed boat onto a trailer and took it to several surrounding high schools in the county. The admissions counselors set up an admissions tent in the parking lot of the schools with the boat parked behind them. The plan garnered a lot of attention.

“It has been a huge hit,” says Alessa Tracy, Director of Undergraduate Admissions. “Students would come outside around their lunch hour or after school and were genuinely excited to hear about Grace. There is no doubt the boat has a wow-factor that attracts high school students.”

Prospective students snap photos with the touring Grace College boat.

But it wasn’t just the high school visits that were reinvented this year, the Grace campus visits included a new, wow-factor of their own: personalized photo shoots.

Grace began marketing these “Instagram-worthy photo shoots” as a new addition to its campus tours. These free, 30-minute shoots allowed students to pick several poses and locations around campus—spurring some students to try bold and out-of-the-box ideas. The shoots proved to be a great hit among students, many going so far as to use the photos as profile pictures on social media or as senior photos.

“These photoshoots embody what we call the ‘way of Grace,’” explains Matt Metzger, Director of Marketing at Grace. “We want our students to feel a tangible difference when they are at Grace—like they already belong. These photos serve as a memento from their campus visit and a reminder of our stunning lake-side campus.”

Overall, the new fall admissions initiatives saw positive results. In September, the number of college tours was up 20 percent from September of 2019. And the school is currently up over 10 percent in deposited students year-to-date.

“It’s always hard to project the year to come, but it looks like we are on track for another strong enrollment year ahead,” Pohl says.

To schedule a Grace College visit, go to
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