Last year, J.J. Hill drove about 10,000 miles from high school to high school in his ride — a silver Subaru Crosstrek emblazoned with the Blue Mountain Community College logo.
On Wednesday, the BMCC recruiter chatted with 25 Echo High School seniors about college. He blended with his audience, sporting a ball cap, jeans and T-shirt. The Pilot Rock native came to this position as head of the BMCC recruitment program by way of Eastern Oregon University, where he majored in theater, and New York and Chicago, where he did theater and stand-up comedy. Hill told a few jokes, but mostly kept the teens trained on the future.
“Who’s going to college?” he asked.
Almost two-thirds raised their hands.
“We’re going to do a little word association,” Hill told the students. “When I say ‘community college,’ what’s the first word that comes into your head?’”
Words flowed back to Hill: small, cheap, more affordable, future, cost.
Hill flung out another phrase — four-year college — and got another stream of words: big, scary, expensive, huge, money, dorms and debt.
He segued into a discussion of why small can be good. BMCC has an average class size of 15, he said, quite different from four-year institutions where freshmen often find large lecture halls and little or no one-on-one time with instructors. Students asked about programs, financial aid and how to find scholarships. When the recruiter wrapped it up, students crowded around him to ask follow-up questions.
What Hill is doing seems to be working.
BMCC reported enrollment of 11 percent more students compared with last fall term — while the nation’s community colleges are collectively experiencing a downward trend. Lane Community College in Eugene, for example, experienced a 6.5 percent decline compared with last fall according to an article in “The Torch,” the college’s media organization. The BMCC number, which is 2,766 students, up from 2,491 in 2016, is just a snapshot, a moment in time, but administrators are ecstatic. BMCC Vice-President of Student Affairs Diane Drebin said the Pendleton college has managed to buck a trend.
“It is unusual to see a rise in enrollment when it isn’t associated with a decline in the economy,” Drebin said.
BMCC President Camille Preus credits a switch in recruitment strategy that began three years ago. It didn’t — “Shazam” — just happen, she said.
The college got intentional about face time with potential students and outreach is at full-throttle. Hill treks to each high school in BMCC’s 18,000-square-mile district at least twice a year.
He said he tries to bust the stereotypes that community colleges are small and cheap.
“They aren’t cheap,” he said. “They are more affordable.”
Hill said he likes hearing teenagers tell their stories.
“High school students are awesome,” he said. “I just talk with them hoping to spark questions. Seniors have a lot of questions and college is on their minds. A lot of what I do is to stay patient and wait for them to ask.”
The other full-time recruitment person, program assistant (and BMCC graduate) Abby Pierson, focuses on younger students. Pierson engaged several dozen Hermiston middle school students during a recent campus tour. Pierson connected with them by revealing her silly side.
“Fun fact,” she said. “I can lick my elbow.”
She demonstrated, eliciting giggles, then did a quick blast of BMCC history, telling students they would need to regurgitate the information in a Jeopardy-esque game at the end. She explained the FAFSA (otherwise known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), the cost of attending college and the relationship between education and future earnings. A list of all 70 BMCC degrees and certificate programs flashed onto a screen. Pierson sped up, slowed down, changed gears and pulled them along. Afterwards, the students toured campus, visiting the library, bookstore, athletic center, art museum, the farm, diesel lab and other buildings on campus. By the time they climbed back on the bus, they could imagine themselves at BMCC.
Outreach with the high school seniors continues via social media. The outreach office tracks the journey each potential new student makes from FAFSA to enrollment.
“We’ve shifted from a passive approach to an intentional one. Once we get their attention, we stay connected and do a lot of follow-up,” Drebin said. “It isn’t just opening our door and saying, ‘Y’all come.’”
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-966-0810.