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May 29, 2014

One on One: Marc Harding


Pitt’s chief enrollment officer is working to bring the Office of Admissions & Financial Aid up to date.

With a relatively new director of marketing and communications, Kate Ledger, on board and Pitt’s first stand-alone director of financial aid, Randy McCready, starting here June 2, Marc L. Harding is headed for his second anniversary as Pitt’s chief enrollment officer on June 15 with plans to bring the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid (OAFA) up to date.

For starters, he will be creating a social media strategy for the office and dealing with a shrinking pool of high-school graduates in Pennsylvania.

He has spent his own freshman and sophomore years, so to speak, looking “to change the organization to accommodate what I saw were things coming down the line, things that I saw as needing strong leadership positions: financial aid, recruiting and outreach, operations and strategic planning, information systems and marketing and communications.

“Every one of our students is probably walking around with a smartphone, so we need a social digital strategy which has really never existed in our office,” he adds. “It’s our job to be the very best at presenting the brand, supporting the brand in all the media channels that are out there.” Ledger is chairing Pitt’s social media task force and helping with a new Twitter feature in which Harding answers enrollment questions under @PittAdmissions with the hashtag #PittReMarcs.

McCready, as the new, separate financial aid director in the office, will give this area “proper leadership — it needs direction,” Harding says.

“I want the financial aid office to be much more visible within our student community,” Harding explains, counseling students and parents on financial literacy and debt management. “You can’t recruit a traditional direct-out-of-high-school student these days, coming in as a freshman, without recruiting the parent. What 17- or 18-year-old has those kind of resources in the bank? The answer is, precious few, if any. So parents become critical.”

While the amount of financial aid an institution offers is a crucial factor in many students’ decisions to enroll, Harding believes the effort required to get through college successfully is a more crucial part of any student’s investment. Thus, college choice is a decision that should not be dependent solely on the amount of financial aid an institution offers.

“So you got the money — did that bring you more feeling about the University, a stronger relationship with the University?” he says, adding: “There are people who will go to Harvard no matter what it costs. There are people who will go to Pitt no matter what it costs. Our job is to present the best case we can … they will decide … What’s important to them is what’s the price they’re willing to pay to get their goal, their dream?”


Harding conjures the traditional illustration of a funnel to describe the recruitment, admissions and enrollment process: Pitt gets 30,000 applications and whittles them down to the 16,000 admitted, all in the hopes of getting 3,900 enrollees and retaining them (Pitt’s retention rate is 93 percent) until graduation. About 900 of the 3,922 enrollees this fall will be transfer students.

Recruiters start with “inquiry generation”: prompting students to ask for applications — and end with “yield management”: convincing the accepted to enroll.

Many recruiting steps take place simultaneously. “Right now we are working with the fall 2014 class. We’re sitting in May and students are signing up for Pitt Start [orientation]. At the same time we are going to start accepting applications for students for 2015, in a month. And there are still some students who have paid a deposit at Pitt and have paid a deposit at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will go to two orientations … So in a sense we are still not done [with the 2014 entering class].” Then there are the students who were accepted, said no, then changed their minds, he says.

“Most students go to college within a 300-mile radius of what they call home,” Harding reports. That fact could mean difficult days are ahead. Between 2010 and 2013, high-school senior enrollment in Pennsylvania fell 4 percent, from 157,625 to 151,660, Harding says, citing state Department of Education data. So the predicted 6-percent decline in the state’s high-school grads over the next three or four years could hit hard if Pitt’s recruiting strategies don’t shift. Harding expects to recruit more nationally and internationally. Although Pitt has students from all 50 states, only 38 percent of enrollees are from out of state, and 11 states contribute three-quarters of those non-Pennsylvania students: New Jersey, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, Florida and Texas.

“We recruit from every state, but I’m not sending a recruiter to every state,” Harding says. “It has to be strategic.”

In addition, Harding says OAFA will take other new or expanded tacks in its recruitment efforts. “You look at where alumni are based,” he says. “What you have are brand ambassadors. They’re talking about the school.” He also expects Pitt’s move to the NCAA Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) for its major sports teams to help with recruitment in ACC states: Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, New York, Indiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

He wants to capitalize more on Pitt’s reputation in areas where Pitt faculty and research create buzz, such as medicine. Harding remembers learning in his Boston grade school about polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk’s work. “But I had no idea it was associated with Pitt,” he says.

At commencement last month, when Pitt honored one of Salk’s associates as well as two other recent medical pioneers, Harding recalls thinking: “‘This is like a Time magazine [cover].’ Giants affecting the lives of people in the world … how do we get that out there? At the end of the day, if you sum it up, we’re about relationship building … how do you translate that back to a 17-year-old, such that students say, ‘I want to come to a place where they change the world?’”

Harding reluctantly acknowledges that recent downturns in state support may put more pressure on recruitment to bring in tuition dollars: “If there is less money from the state, where is the money going to come from? Revenue? Tuition revenue? … I never like to make it about money first, but the fact of the matter is students bring in money that drives the intellectual, social vibrancy of this place and then again also drives the funding that we get.”

Student practices also are making enrollment calculations more uncertain. According to the 2012 National Association for College Admission Counseling report, there is “inflation” in the application process, with more students applying to more colleges as a hedge against not being accepted.

“Where that’s important in this process is yield,” Harding says. “That means we probably have to admit more students who are probably more undecided. We have to pay attention more closely to the data. You have the head, the facts: Do you have my major? What’s the housing? … Then you have the heart: Was it raining [during the campus visit]? I’ve seen folks just get drenched on a tour and say, ‘Let’s get out of here.’

“Students and parents are, in many cases, deciding whether this is a place to apply based on a couple of small interactions with the institution … We spend a lot of time trying to get students to want to apply and enroll. But this whole business of fit— it’s the intangible part. We can send our brochures and all this stuff — that’s really tangential to how they feel when they’re standing here.

“It’s something I drill and drill and drill and drill. It takes the entire University community to enroll a class. When a family drives on campus and views the places, how well it is groomed … I didn’t do that. I can give you 50 variables that impact a student’s view before they visit a place. Even our current students, [visitors] are evaluating them: Are they engaged? Are they doing things?

“Unlike any other decision on this planet, the admissions decision is the most unique,” he adds. “Students start out as the consumers, shopping for college, and they end up as the product for the rest of their lives. You travel with your student colors. You are that university. You can’t extract that from yourself. While there’s a sales aspect to what we do, there’s this piece we really take to heart in our profession, about fit. We want students to become their institutions. And I think that’s why this is so unique. That permeates a lot of what we do … and why we take it seriously. [If]we misrepresent this place, we could affect retention. The positive of that is, we get to be the foundation for retention.”

—Marty Levine