Persuading Students to Choose Grinnell

Joe Bagnoli, vice president for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid

In October of 2017, I had the pleasure of speaking with alumni volunteers on campus during Volunteer Weekend about the work of the admission and financial aid offices. I quizzed their memories of the college search process that eventually brought them to Grinnell College. Most of the non-Iowans in the room were willing to admit to some reservations, as high school seniors, about the idea of going to college in Iowa. These alumni, of course, are among our most passionate and committed, who volunteer their time in service to the mission of Grinnell College. Clearly, they are grateful they did not allow their initial apprehensions about enrolling at Grinnell to dissuade them. Our location is the most significant impediment to student recruitment.

For all the reasons why generations of Grinnell alumni are so loyal to their alma mater, we continue to fly Grinnell’s flag high above the fields of corn that surround our campus. While the beauty of the Iowa prairie and the possibilities that call from J.B. Grinnell’s “ideal community” initially escape many prospective students, it is our desire in the Offices of Admission and Financial Aid to identify students with Grinnellian qualities and to persuade them to pursue the dreams that come alive just beyond the corn tassels. Like many of our alumni, they do not choose Grinnell because of our location; many choose Grinnell in spite of it, and we’re learning through research to reframe our location as a positive when they discover more compelling things that distinguish us from our peers. 

The morass of college admission publications makes it especially important to define and declare our distinctive competencies. In an environment where many colleges claim similar strengths, it is crucial that we reveal a Grinnell that is real (authentic to who we are), relevant (compelling to prospective students), and rare (not easily found at other places). What is it we can say of Grinnell to satisfy those standards and inspire interest among prospective students? We interviewed over 350 well-qualified prospects to determine how they would answer that question. 

It turned out that some of our initial assumptions were incorrect. For example, prospects were not as interested in self-governance as we anticipated. Many more were interested in our academic reputation, the individually advised curriculum, our focus on global perspectives, research, experiential learning, and preparation for a successful career. Perhaps the most important finding from our study was that only when programs at Grinnell are perceived as integral to every student’s experience did most prospects find them compelling. Through important investments we have made in programs that impact all of our students, regardless of family financial resources, it is possible for us to distinguish Grinnell in ways that matter to prospective students.

This is our promise. Through a range of exceptional programs, learning spaces, and the support of a world-class faculty and staff, Grinnell still offers a boldly individualized approach to learning for intellectually engaged students and we help them navigate a complex world so they can contribute to the common good. What distinguishes us is not that we offer an exemplary academic program, undergraduate research, global learning, and career development, but that we offer these things to every student. Our task is to convince qualified prospects that they can find such an experience here. Like so many who have found reasons to love Grinnell and accept the role our prairie location plays in this experience, our intention is to lift up what makes us uniquely Grinnell so that generations of new Grinnellians can join us in this “field of dreams.”

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