Enrollment Blog

How Northern Arizona University doubled its freshman enrollment over the last decade

by Anika Olsen

When I came to the Northern Arizona University Admissions Office in 2006, it wasn’t a happy place.

Enrollment had been steadily declining for a number of years, recruiting campaigns were antiquated, and our “enrollment funnel” was a cloud swirling out of our control.

To make matters worse, the university as a whole was grappling with what could be described as a crisis of confidence: it was the smallest school in the state and often considered the third choice behind two larger institutions. The campus community was sometimes complacent—even conciliatory—about its place in the pecking order.

A time to change

My colleagues on our admission team had already hired Royall to help us revamp our recruitment program and cultivate a can-do attitude, and, over time, we accomplished both goals with Royall's help.

We saved money and processing time by promoting our online application, deployed data analytics to effectively implement junior and then sophomore search programs, and mastered communication content and timing with our newly targeted students. Keep reading to find out how these improvements helped us in two key areas: launching a self-reported application and building an out-of-state recruitment program.

Self-reported applications shorten application processing timeline

NAU's student self-reported application, implemented in 2010, emphasized a “Core GPA” of 16 college preparatory classes and allowed students to record their own unofficial transcript. Our team agreed to trust our prospective students to share accurate information, and that let us postpone the time-consuming task of verifying it until after students had been admitted and were planning to attend NAU.

Of course we were initially a little leery of self-reporting, but only a handful of NAU's 34,000 applicants reported false information each year. Many students, in fact, under-reported their scores to avoid any appearance of embellishment!

This fresh approach was a huge hit with our applicants: 50% of students chose to self-report that first year. Because we verified student information after admission, our self-reported application process was speedy and efficient. We didn't waste departmental resources on checking the scores and stats of students who were not ultimately going to attend our school, and therefore we were able to direct those resources toward recruiting and admitting students who were planning to enroll.

Read how four other schools increased enrollment and revenue

Over the years, this narrowed focus enabled us to accelerate our notification speed. Eventually, we were granting students’ admission within 24 hours of receiving their applications, and merit aid awards were issued soon thereafter.

Our team was excited to learn that being the first school to grant a scholarship to a student made a powerful impression that fueled deposit rates, which we were now tracking—minute-by-minute—in order to identify students who were swayable but not yet committed.

Fueling enrollment growth by recruiting out-of-state students

Over time, NAU began taking more and more market share. It was clear that our self-reported application had given us a vital competitive advantage over our state’s “big dog” schools. Freshman applications and enrollment grew year over year, and word got out among future students that NAU was not merely a “fallback” school.

Part and parcel of that change of image and attitude was NAU's emergent out-of-state freshman student pool. Our neighbor, California, was enjoying growth in its high school graduation rates; California had more students, so we targeted them.

Making the most of the Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) that limits out-of-state tuition rates to 1.5x in-state tuition, we were able to draw talented students across the state line. Today, one-quarter to one-third of NAU’s students are from California.

And Northern Arizona University is now a major player in not one state, but two!

After investing nearly 20 years in student life and enrollment management at Northern Arizona University, I have joined Royall & Company to help other institutions weather these challenging years in higher education.

I was inspired to make the leap because my team and I had faced a few challenges of our own at NAU—and more than doubled our freshman enrollment in a decade in spite of those challenges. In 2006, our full-time freshman enrollment was 2,200, and just ten years later, in 2016, that number has grown to 5,379.

As you turn your calendar to 2017, resolve to launch your own transformative decade.

Ready-to-use diagnostic: Evaluate your current digital recruitment practices

Download our Digital Recruitment Marketing Capabilities Diagnostic to see how your recruitment practices stack up—as well as how to identify where performance gaps exist in your current strategy.

Get the diagnostic


  • Manage Your Events
  • Saved webpages and searches
  • Manage your subscriptions
  • Update personal information
  • Invite a colleague