In mid-February, things were really looking up on the application front at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business.
Five months and a global pandemic later, they’re looking even better.
By the time business schools and the rest of higher education shut down in early March, Notre Dame Mendoza’s full-time, two-year MBA already had received 431 applications, eclipsing by two its entire app total from the previous year with two more rounds yet to go. Now, at the close of the 2019-2020 cycle, the Mendoza College has received 675 submitted applications, representing 57.3% year-to-year growth.
It’s about momentum, says Tim Bohling, chief marketing and graduate enrollment officer at the college. Notre Dame had it, and the school has kept it.
“I’m so pleased to convey we’ve continued our momentum through these turbulent times from a pandemic standpoint, and we’re looking at over 50% increase in applications for our two-year MBA program,” Bohling says. “It has just been a tremendous cycle, a tremendous recruitment season, if you will, for what we expect to be a semester like no other in our two-year program.”
DEPLOYING A ‘PROVEN MARKETING METHODOLOGY’
Notre Dame Mendoza lost more than 25% of its app volume over the previous two cycles, dropping by 149 applications to 429 in 2018-2019. That decline sparked a jump in acceptance rate, from just under 48% to just over 53%, as enrollment dropped from 123 to 116.
Now, with those numbers turning around, other important figures are following. While international applications have understandably taken a hit, Mendoza is well ahead of its targets on key diversity metrics like number of women and under-represented minorities in the MBA program, Bohling says, though he doesn’t have final admit numbers because some applicants are still submitting materials to complete their applications. On gender diversity, in particular, he is pleased that the school is likely to have well over 30% women in the fall cohort, up from 24% last year.
What’s behind the rebound? Not luck. In January of 2019, when Bohling joined Notre Dame, the school deployed a “proven market methodology that I had the pleasure of developing, implementing in industries outside of higher education,” says Bohling, who is also a professor of marketing at the B-school.
“The team’s really done a tremendous job of communicating what’s meaningfully distinct about our graduate business programs here at Notre Dame to the prospective students into the world,” he says.
That team includes Dean Martijn Cremers, who took the helm at Notre Dame Mendoza in March 2019.
‘AN AUTHENTIC & COMPELLING CALL TO ACTION’
There are three pillars to the marketing plan that has turned things around at the Mendoza MBA, which is currently ranked 27th by P&Q (up from 29th) and 30th by U.S. News (down from 26th). Bohling calls the plan a “smarter marketing and recruitment playbook” that is “completely different than what we have done here historically — and, I would assert, quite different than what many other institutions still do.”
The first pillar: developing and activating “an entirely new brand narrative, with an authentic and compelling call to action.” It boils down to one sentence: “Grow the good in business.” Bohling calls it a call to action, underpinned by brand promises around integral leadership development, experiential learning on the front lines of community mutual advancement, and alignment with the arc of the school’s evolving curriculum. The narrative is> data-driven, Bohling says — the product of more than 200 hours of collective input from faculty and staff, 40-plus hours of input from students, surveys and more.
The second pillar is a digital-first marketing and recruitment strategy focused on “the entire enrollment journey.”
“We looked at it from a prospective-student, student-centricity standpoint across the entire journey,” Bohling says. “We’re delivering much more personalized and integrated communications across the entire journey. And frankly, in many schools, it’s very disjointed. We’re very clear on what makes us meaningfully distinct. And importantly, the heartbeat of this is the dashboard that enables us to understand what works and doesn’t work — so we can sense and respond to what’s happening in the marketplace from a candidate fitness standpoint.”
And the third pillar? Restructuring. The school is operating with a new organization model that integrates marketing and enrollment, going from four teams in the past to one now.
“So we have a great alignment across the entire enrollment journey,” Bohling says. “Smarter marketing recruitment playbook and those three building blocks have really made a demonstrable contribution. And I’m very pleased this year that students who have expressed their appreciation for how we interact with them throughout the entire journey, it is quite positive.”
A PERFECT PLAYBOOK FOR THIS MOMENT
From the evidence, the new Mendoza approach seems unique suited to the times. One of the key elements of the school’s smarter marketing recruitment playbook is agility, Bohling says — the ability to sense and respond. A world-disrupting pandemic is a good time to be quick on your feet.
“We were able to very quickly pivot from certain segments of the world, frankly, that were less likely to participate, doubling down on those areas that were more likely,” he says. “It’s helped us really connect better with certain segments of the population that will elevate our class profile. When there are uncertainties in the marketplace, the playbook we run is perfect for those times.”
So will the rebound result in a larger MBA class this fall? Not necessarily.
“We’ve really been focused this cycle on what I’ll call elevating the class profile and reaching very good metrics with regards to females and underrepresented minorities,” Bohling tells Poets&Quants. “We’ll see a little movement in the class size, but our goal is not to grow the class in a big way. Frankly, our higher priority right now is to elevate the class profile. We think that the class size is a good one here at Notre Dame.”
THE FALL PICTURE SLOWLY COMES INTO FOCUS
Notre Dame Mendoza is planning for in-person classes but may have Zoom-like arrangements out of necessity, Bohling says. It’s a decision that affects him — as a teaching professor — personally. What does he expect the classroom to look like next month?
To start with, for international students with visa problems, “We will be making virtual accommodations for both orientations of all classes to all admitted international students from all countries who will not be able to arrive on campus for reasons beyond their control,” Bohling says. “Classes will be in person, but as an instructor as well, I’m ready to have synchronous activity via Zoom while having students in the classroom as well.
“We are starting a bit earlier and going straight through. So, straight through to Thanksgiving. That’s exactly the schedule we are working toward, and we’ll be welcoming students back here soon.
“There will be both student and faculty health checks on a regular basis — before they arrive on campus and while on campus. We are taking every precaution that we can. I will be wearing a mask. I anticipate wearing a mask and/or a shield as well. The students will all be asked to wear masks also. So yes, this will be a semester like no other. We said that about last semester! But this one’s going to be even more like no other.”