BY NICK IRONSIDE AND ANDREW BLOM // DEC. 5, 2011 //

The work never stops for the Curry admissions staff.

Year in and year out, the college faces tremendous competitive challenges. Curry is a small, non-selective liberal arts college located in New England, making it the most common type of school in the area. Moreover, the vast majority of traditional undergraduates here (about 67 percent) are from high schools in Massachusetts, meaning the admissions staff is often working to recruit from a limited pool of students.

Catlin Connall and Desmond, her father, of Columbia Md.

If all that wasn’t hard enough, approximately 35 percent of Curry freshmen don’t return to the college for a second year. That’s a significant loss of student tuition and money from housing and fees. Plus, transfer students don’t come close to making up the difference, according to the college.

As a result, “we recruit 12 months out of the year,” said Dean of Admissions Jane Fidler.

Part of the recruitment effort includes two open houses each fall, in October and November. Thousands of mostly high school students and their families come to campus to see what the college has to offer.

“We have found that once we are able to get prospective students on campus, those students enroll at a much higher rate than students who never visit the campus,” said Fidler.

This fall, 934 students visited Curry during the two open houses; 514 in October and 420 in November. But those numbers tell only a small part of the story. In a typical year, approximately 5,500 students apply to the college, and about 69 percent are accepted, according to Fidler. Of those, around 700 students enroll.

Curry goes all-out to impress during its open houses. Faculty were required to attend at least one of the events, to talk with prospective students; the student-run radio station, WMLN, broadcasted live outside of the Student Center; the college brought in Fenway Park tour buses to transport students and their family across campus; free food and iced frappuccinos were widely available; and new flowers and fresh mulch highlighted the scenic beauty of Curry’s wooded campus.

“This feels real,” said Omolara Oshodi, a senior at Mount St. Joseph Academy in Boston, during the November open house.

Senior communication major Mark Alexander said his experience touring Curry more or less mirrored what the college actually provides. “We’re the real deal,” he said, adding that he also looked at Wheaton and Johnson and Wales. “We give our best.”

When Alexander was a high school senior touring Curry, he was talking to a communication professor when President Ken Quigley came up and joined the conversation. “The last colleges didn’t have that,” he adds. “That’s what sold me!”

For open houses, Curry’s Student Center gymnasium is transformed into an academic fair, with each department hosting tables filled with information and generally smiling professors. However, the academic fair atmosphere had a downside. Fidler said a few students were unhappy with the crowded gym because they were unable to have meaningful one-on-one conversations with faculty. “It’s virtually impossible to have a conversation with every family and student, which is what I’d like to do,” said Fidler.

To reach out to each student on an individual level, Curry began offering “breakout sessions,” where prospective students could go to smaller, topic-specific group sessions during the open houses. In November, there were breakout sessions for individual majors as well as for PAL and financial aid. Curry recently added study abroad and career services sessions, too.

Caitlin Connall, a senior at the Baltimore (Md.) Lab School, visited Curry with her dad, Desmond. She said she was impressed with the college and preferred Curry’s small class sizes, particularly compared to some of the other schools she’s looking at, such as Boston College and Boston University.  “I don’t want to be the 32nd person in the back row, waving ‘help me!’” Connall said.

Although the Curry admissions staff attends college fairs throughout the year to reach potentially interested students, an increasing number of students are discovering Curry on their own. Fidler said the majority of students at this year’s open houses found out about the events by visiting Curry’s Web site, as opposed to being recruited at their high schools or hearing from friends.

Ultimately, however, the success of the open houses will be determined by the number of students who apply for admissions to the college. In the spring semester, Curry holds special open house events for students who were accepted, with the goal of closing the deal. That’s not easy for a variety of reasons, including the high number of colleges Curry competes with. Among public colleges, the list includes UMass-Dartmouth, UMass-Amherst and Bridgewater State. Among private schools, Endicott College (Beverly, Mass.), Regis College (Waltham, Mass.) and Lasell College (Newton, Mass.) are among Curry’s many competitors.

“If a student wants to be in a city, we’re not a city,” said Fidler. “There’s nothing we can really do about that.”

Similarly, there’s little the admissions department can do about the cost of a Curry education: $46,005 for a campus resident, including fees. If a student chooses to be in PAL, it’s an additional $6,550. Although approximately 70 percent of Curry students receive some form of financial assistance, Fidler said she hopes students look at the quality of academic programs instead of focusing on the price.

Not everyone at the November open house was sold.

The college “didn’t have that wow factor, and the tuition is a lot more than other schools,” said David Thibodeau, who visited Curry in November with his daughter, Kaitlin, and wife, Susan. “For that much money, we wanted more. When I walked into the library, I wasn’t sure it was even a library!”

For now, Fidler and her staff are eagerly awaiting admissions applications. According to a survey Curry conducted following the October open house, 95 percent of respondents said they were now more likely to apply for admission.

Fidler beamed while talking about that survey. “Those are some good numbers!”

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