In the summer of 1950, John O’Regan ’54 walked to the 1801 Harvard Drive home of Frs. Alfred Horrigan and Raymond Treece and enrolled at Bellarmine College before the first building on campus was even built. “I don’t think they’d even broken ground yet,” he told Bellarmine Magazine in 2011. “They didn’t have applications, so I filled out an index card. I was there for maybe 10 minutes that evening. I walked back home and told my mother I was registered for school.”
The process these days is a little bit more complex.
As any high school student picking a college will tell you, college enrollment is often fraught with stressful, high-stakes decisions: choosing a short list of schools, further whittling that list down, deciding on a major, choosing where to live and how much debt to take on. The process seems to begin in infancy, but it’s almost always in fast gear by the sophomore or junior year of high school. Just when you start to get comfortable with the idea of being a high school kid, colleges start bombarding you with marketing messages and an annoying uncle starts asking you where you’re going to matriculate.
Along the way, there are booklets, postcards, emails, tweets, campus tours, academic counseling and scholarship offers. There’s the daunting world of financial aid to decode and the FAFSA form to complete, which is about as much fun as having a root canal. Not to mention peer pressure.
The process is also challenging for college admission officers. Colleges want students who are right for their schools, both academically and socially. At Bellarmine, a student must be comfortable at a small, private liberal-arts college in Louisville. Have your heart set on palm trees, Division I football or hiding in the back of a 600-seat Psych 101 auditorium? You’re probably not a good fit for Bellarmine.
Besides the typical marketing mentioned above, Bellarmine uses some creative means to show students exactly what the university offers and to help them all the way through the process, often until well after they’ve begun classes in the fall of their freshman year.
The campus visit, for instance, includes an option for a festive trolley ride through the Highlands, to give students and parents a better understanding of the neighborhood. Visiting students can also spend a night in a residence hall, meet faculty and sit in on classes. And once a student enrolls, highly successful support programs like Pioneer Scholars (for first-generation college students) and Learning Communities (built around cohorts of students studying a common discipline) kick in even before school starts. Beginning this year, freshman students are all reading the same book: the NPR collection of essays This I Believe.
And recently, Bellarmine has creatively used social media to make incoming freshmen feel like family before they even get to campus. (More on that in a moment.)
The Bellarmine admission team is clearly doing something right. Enrollment and graduation rates have risen dramatically in recent years. Freshman enrollment has grown from 409 students in 2004 to 606 last year, according to Mike Rudolph, assistant director of institutional research. At this writing (in August), a whopping 684 freshmen were enrolled for this fall. Likewise, Bellarmine awarded 578 degrees (undergraduate and graduate) in 2004, and 876 last year. (For those of you keeping score at home, there were 42 graduating seniors in Mr. O’Regan’s 1954 Pioneer Class.)
One incoming freshman this fall is Molly Badgett, an accounting major from Louisville who attended St. Agnes School and Manual High School. Bellarmine was always at the top of Ms. Badgett’s college list because her father, Peyton Badgett ’77, who died when she was two, loved the school.
“My dad went to Bellarmine and he had a fantastic time there,” she said. “I’d see the beautiful campus and I heard about how it was such a good school with a great reputation. Small classes really attracted me.”
She also knew she wanted to go to an in-state school. “I wanted to be close to home,” she said. “My mom and I are very close.” So Ms. Badgett was already a fan of Bellarmine before the marketing materials started rolling in and she rolled through the Highlands on the trolley last October.
But there was still the problem of cost. That’s where Bellarmine’s financial-aid options came to the rescue. She applied for and received scholarships, including a Beeny Residence Life Scholarship that will allow her to live on campus. (All BU applicants who complete the FAFSA automatically receive financial aid offers, and 100 percent of them get some form of assistance.)
“I don’t think I would have been able to go to Bellarmine without the scholarships,” she said. “It was very generous.”
By March, she’d decided she wanted to go to Bellarmine but she hadn’t yet settled on her major. Then Dr. Audrey Gramling, the chair of the Accounting Department, mailed her a “giant accounting packet,” she said.
“As I was looking at it, my mom would say, ‘It’s something to look into; keep your mind open.’ So I decided to set up a meeting with Dr. Gramling. I talked to her and I said, ‘I like the idea of working in business, but I don’t want to crunch numbers all day. Calculus scares me and I don’t want to be stuck behind a desk all day.’ And she explained to me that accounting majors go on to do multiple things, and it’s one of the best gateway degrees to go into business. She really persuaded me that it would be a good investment in my future.”
Even though Ms. Badgett was still in high school, she was career-minded. “Bellarmine’s accounting program and the business school in general have a very good reputation to help students meet future employers,” she said. “They even have the Bellarmine University Accounting Association, and there’ll be all sorts of career options.”
She also took advantage of the Rubel School Summer Scholarship Program, which allows incoming freshmen to jumpstart their college careers by taking two free summer classes. “One of them is required to be Accounting 101. The second one you can choose, and I’m in psychology starting next week,” she said. “I’m meeting some other incoming accounting majors and it’s going to be a very close group, and I really like the teacher, Keith Richardson, and I’m hoping psych will go well and… I’m excited!”
With her college choice made and her major decided, it was time for the work to begin. By July, it had begun in earnest. “I’ve been studying like crazy,” she said. “When I’m not studying, I’m working at Papa Murphy’s Pizza. Just yesterday I took an hour-and-a-half timed accounting test, then went back for an intense study session over the next three chapters that we’re going to be quizzed on Monday.”
Sound like a busy summer? “It’s completely worth it,” she said.
She was also looking forward to moving onto campus, a move made possible by the new Beeny Residence Life Scholarship. Endowed this year by Claudia and Richard Beeny, it provides full room and board for a freshman who agrees to become involved in student government. The Beenys’ idea is that living on campus and being involved helps students become leaders.
“I wasn’t planning on living on campus, but the scholarship has given me this opportunity and I’m really excited,” Ms. Badgett said. “I’ve seen from just the past couple of weeks of being in class, going back and forth and doing all the study sessions, it’s crazy. But I’ll be living in Siena Quarto. I’ve already met my roommate and I think we’ll really get along.”
Building such camaraderie among incoming freshmen is another unexpected piece of the admission puzzle. Last year, Bellarmine started a social media campaign called “Bellarmine Bound” to give the Class of 2017 a way to start communicating with each other via Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram and other networks. The Bellarmine Bound program included a free T-shirt and instructions to connect via the Twitter hashtag #BellarmineBound. Excited class members took to the tag in droves, posting “selfies” wearing their Bellarmine Bound shirts. The Class of 2017 Facebook page also offered a way for students to meet each other early.
“Bellarmine Bound is fun,” said Ms. Badgett. “It’s a good way to reach out to people. I really enjoy seeing all the T-shirts that pop up in the Bellarmine Class of 2017 page, and it’s been a really nice convenience. We haven’t even started our freshman year but we’re already being drawn all together. … There are people from Canada, people from Arizona who are chipping in to say they’re Bellarmine Bound as well. It’s fantastic! Using technology to bring people together, to bring them closer, who normally wouldn’t be able to connect – it’s very interesting to see.”
Because Ms. Badgett decided on the school early and qualified for a lot of financial aid, her journey to Bellarmine was relatively painless. Many students struggle with tough academic, financial, social and personal decisions before making the final call. But judging by the Bellarmine Bound posts, one thing hasn’t changed since the ’50s: Incoming freshmen are very excited about starting college.
Jim Welp | firstname.lastname@example.org