Jessica King Gereghty
Season 4 - Episode 415
Amidst the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19, Baylor welcomed a record incoming class last fall. Baylor University Admissions navigated those challenges to connect students to Baylor and welcome them into the family. In this Baylor Connections, Jessica King Gereghty, assistant vice president of enrollment management, examines how it all came together, and shares how new programs like Summer of Discovery and Accelerate help students connect with Baylor before setting foot on campus.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith and today we are talking admissions with Jessica King Gereghty. Jessica King Gereghty serves as Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management in Baylor Undergraduate Admissions. A Baylor graduate herself, she joined Undergraduate Admissions at Baylor in 2008 and has helped lead through a period of dramatic growth. Last fall, Baylor welcomed the largest freshman class in school history continuing a trend of growth over the last decade despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic all while maintaining Baylor's high academic standards. This year's freshman class, along with the student body as a whole, are the most diverse in school history as well. UA Enrollment Management has developed programs like Summer of Discovery and Accelerate to offer new ways for students to connect with and experience Baylor University before they ever set foot on campus. Well, Jessica King Gereghty, it's great to have you on the program today and talk about the great work that you and your team are doing. Thanks so much for joining us, and it's I know a very busy season for you.
Jessica King Gereghty:Thanks, Derek. People say like, "What's the busiest time in admissions?" And the true answer is every day is the busiest day. If we slow down, things slow down. So, a long, long, long time ago I've heard that they had a relaxing summer, but I haven't seen those days.
Derek Smith:I got you.
Jessica King Gereghty:Yeah.
Derek Smith:Maybe just an urban legend about the relaxing summers. Well, Jessica, talking about that, I know admissions follows a calendar that has familiar annual patterns, there's deadlines, there's events. What in spring of 2021 is normal and what's different?
Jessica King Gereghty:Yeah. You know what? I do a training for all of our new staff that's called the Four Pillars of Admissions Timeline and you're right. We have a cyclical timeline and there's four major pillars like launching our application, our first application deadline, which is in November, our second application deadline, which is in February. And then we close with our fourth pillar. A lot of people would think that's our deposit deadline, but it's actually since census day. Because our work doesn't get judged by what happens when our deposit deadline hits. But rather we work all through the summer to make sure that we're bringing in the actual class that is perfect match with what the university's needing in terms of shaping and finances and academics and majors. And so you're right, it's cyclical and April is a very busy month. What's different? That is a big question. You know what's different Derek? Okay, so we, my leadership team and I have spent for 12 years working arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, we have deeper relationships and quite frankly, over a combined 100 years of admissions experience. And enrollment management is actually the practice that's even larger than admissions of managing the finances. Now we're with cashier's office and financial aid and headed towards five-year strategic goals for the university. So that's enrollment management when I start to talk about that. With admissions, our team has really grown together and been through so much really, quite frankly, we've had hard years ever since 2016 with what Baylor went through. And then we headed into 2019 thinking, "This year, finally, we're going to catch a break." And I remember the day that my colleague Anis Qourzal flew back from China in January of 2020. And he said, "Something big is about to happen, y'all. This is going to be here before we know it." And I was meeting with leaders in Pat M. Neff and kind of sounding the alarm months before we shut the university down in March. So January and February and March last year were a big wake up call of how many hours do we have to get ready for what we're about to face? And then everything we knew that over 100 years of admissions experience combined is really methodical. Admissions they say enrollment management is a mixture of art and science. We have all of our historical data saved, more data than you would ever imagine, Derek. So we're used to relying on our data and doing predictive modeling and being as strategic as possible with who are the right students, how do they perform? We're not just enrolling an incoming class of 2020. We're enrolling a graduating class of 2024 if we do our job right. So we aren't just going for rear ends in chairs. This is about future graduates of Baylor, our future alumni. And to select them as both an honor and a privilege and also a huge responsibility. And so we know a lot and we have a lot of proof in the pudding of meeting our goals the last decade plus. But quite frankly, everything we relied on in 2020 went up in smoke. So you think of test scores and how heavily that was a part of the national enrollment landscape and that we didn't have them anymore. You think of events, the campus visits, which is the number one indication that a student is interested in a university and the number one tool you have to change their mind and the experience that an 18-year-old has and what they feel like when they're on campus. That's the number one driver of a college experience is what do I feel like when I step foot on campus? Now that isn't fickle. You tell me what industry is. And 18-year-olds, they change every single year. It depends on who parented them. It depends on what life situations they went through. It depends on what crisis is they've seen. We didn't have campus visits. We don't have test scores. We can't even show up at a high school and recruit students because they're not in class. We can't travel. We have a budget that we manage and run for travel. We travel in almost every top market in America for Baylor and 27 countries every fall and spring, we have got humans from Baylor in Waco, Texas in those areas representing our university and we couldn't go anywhere. So, I mean, last April and May was a moment for us where it was like, "It doesn't matter how shocked we are, that this is happening. We have to be smarter and serve our university in a way that continues to meet the mission of the university." And for us in a lot of ways in admissions, the load we're carrying is somewhere around 75% of our university's annual budget comes from net tuition revenue. So my challenge to our team was I know we can do this. We have what it takes. We have survived a lot of hard things much more than most universities in America have survived in the last five years. And we keep making our goals in spite of all the challenges that we've seen. So let's intuitively take everything we know from the science of enrollment management and shred the playbook that someone put on our desks 20 years ago when we started in this, and go with our guts and go with our instincts and go with what we know makes Baylor great and rally the troops. And nobody has to ask yes or no on a decision. At this point, you've all been ordained like a priest. You are the priest of your area. You know it. My admissions marketing team, you know marketing. Campus visits, you know what it takes to have an experience that convert someone to choose Baylor. We lost every tool we just had and we are literally flying an airplane and have to land an airplane. A lot of people refer to admissions as landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier because it's that precise of work. We're going to do that with no instruments at all. So what does Baylor look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like when we're behind computer screens at our own homes, making decisions as fast as possible? And that's what we did.
Derek Smith:Mm-hmm (affirmative). Visiting with Jessica King Gereghty from Baylor University Admissions. So Jessica, when you're flying with no instruments, I think you described it a little bit, but ask you specifically when you don't have your instruments what's the true north that you rely on. And from that, what are some of the things that you've learned in the process of bringing in another record class to Baylor in the midst of that? So kind of where it starts at and what are some of the things that have grown from that?
Jessica King Gereghty:So I looked to my left and my right and was so inspired by my colleagues and the people that we get to serve in leadership. We already spent a lot of time, Derek, working on our leadership beliefs in our office. So we have 13 attributes of our Baylor enrollment management leaders. One of them, for example, is a bias for action. So we know that a lot of people would stop and before they make a decision study and study and study it. And sometimes I think at a university, we study to a fault. Whereas in enrollment management, we have to turn on a dime. And sometimes that requires moving fast and learning as you go and saying as a collective group, "We might make a mistake. And if we make a mistake, it's okay. We'll pick each other back up and we'll learn from that lesson and we're just going to continue forward." So that's our bias for action motto. Another one is that as a leadership team, we have a belief that no matter what we do, we come to the table, we argue. This is a belief of ours. We believe that we're better if we argue and we disagree and then we commit. So if I'm sitting at a table as a leader of a topic and someone's not arguing with me, well, we have a problem in our culture. Let's argue it out. Let's disagree so that we come up with the best final product, a creative third option I like to call it. Not your way, not my way, our creative best third and let's commit and we're moving forward. And then we mix all that with a sense of obligation to the university that we all love. One of our leadership beliefs is it's our belief in Baylor that keeps us going. That's the fuel in our tank and that's what we go to bed thinking about, we wake up thinking about. We might be a little obsessive compulsive when it comes to work, but it matters to us because it's about the university. And so those are some of the things we put to practice. I guess what we learned is that we're glad we had all that in place before a global pandemic almost knocked us on our feet, because they gave us a foundation of things to hold on to that we could all say, "I know who you are and I know what you believe, and I know who you are, and I know what you believe. And together we believe we can remind each other of these beliefs and that we can keep going." And then it took just a lot of courage to do that.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Jessica King Gereghty. And Jessica, what are some national trends that you all are seeing that are impacting things here locally at Baylor? Are there some things that stand out that are good, whether it's just us to be ready for change or to leverage, or what have you?
Jessica King Gereghty:A lot of trends. Like I said, they're different than we've ever seen before. So one of those, Derek, is that men in America, 18-year-old men are choosing not to attend college now in the face of the pandemic. That has economic reasons behind it. It has unknowns attached to it just not knowing. It has success from being at home at high school in Zoom settings, feeling unsuccessful or unmotivated to continue academics. Another trend is that we've been working really hard like you mentioned in your opening on diversity and a part of that diversity is our international students. So have gone from not having an international strategy at all when I started in 2008 to having a very robust international recruitment and admissions strategy, an amazing team, a global pathway that we got through. And quite frankly, that international goal has huge funding repercussions for the university, in addition to our diversity and culture impacts. So the minute other citizens were not allowed in this country during the pandemic April 1st, it's like an April Fools' joke, but it's real. We've admitted 150 students from around the globe and I have no idea how many of those will be here this fall or not. It's a huge size of our class. It matters to me for diversity. It matters to me because Baylor students deserve to be in classrooms with people that have global worldview and who better than an international student? And it matters to our goals, but we have literally no control over it. Tests, going test optional was a huge shift for our university. We all had to do it. So back in March and April and June of last year, a time that usually juniors, rising seniors are going crazy taking their tests for [inaudible 00:13:04] applications, SAT, which is run by College Board and ACT didn't offer tests. Now you tell me another market that just folds in the face of a pandemic and test-taking is apparently the one that can go out of business so fast. They're still in business. I don't even know how. They didn't figure it out all summer. We were waiting, me and the other 2000 universities around the universe, around the globe are waiting for them to finish their tests and they didn't get them up and running. So we all were forced to say these poor students that are now at home and have no idea what's happening their senior year, can't go visit colleges. They also can't even take a test. How do we serve them right? So Baylor and 600 other universities went test-optional last spring, which is like relearning how to even evaluate our work. And throwing one key metric, including for U.S. News & World Report is totally out the window and saying, "We'll have to find another way to evaluate the 35 to 40,000 files that are about to cross our desk in a matter of 90 days." So, we did it. But the students that are now applying for colleges, because they've had this like magic button to hit called test-optional for everybody. It's really disrupted the way that all colleges are doing admissions this year. And it's allowed students to have a sense of confidence that maybe let's say, Derek, you thought graduating from a top high school in Texas. I don't know where he went to high school. Let's say you graduated from a top high school, you have all A's, but you don't have a great test score. And your dream is to be the best sports communicator in America. And if you graduate from Harvard, that probably wouldn't be true. But you didn't have the courage to apply for Harvard because you knew your test score wasn't going to get you in. Guess what? This year, there's no such thing as test scores. So this year, Derek, do you think you're going to apply for Harvard? Why not? You have a 4.0 from a great Texas high school. How are they going to judge you against all their other applicants? So you go with your beautiful grades and your good transcript, and apply for every dream out of reach school that you've grown up knowing you couldn't go for because you can. And I don't know what those schools, who those schools are going to admit. So Baylor, which is like in the 70s on that ranking list might be now your last choice when the year before it could have been your first choice.
Derek Smith:What are some of the main ways that you evaluate? You mentioned grades, obviously being one at the Texas high schools. You're probably leveraging a lot of information you and your team have accumulated over the years, but Baylor is very personal in a lot of ways. And what one of the things that you talk about finding that right fit. So as you said, they don't just come here on campus day one, but they're prepared to thrive and graduate and take in all that Baylor has to offer and do it well.
Jessica King Gereghty:Yeah. And how do you help an 18-year-old and their parents make a huge financial commitment to our institution in the face of not being able to visit campus? If I think of our regional associate directors that are recruiting students from around the United States, they're like, "Trust me, Waco's a great place." Like that doesn't actually work. And maybe we have a great TV show. That kind of helps them think they know Waco, but we all know not all of Waco also. So this year we did a lot of imaginative things back to my big speech last April of shred your playbooks, don't rely on what you have always done. Let's go with our gut. Let's go with our Baylor instincts. Let's lead with our imaginations and creativity. And I know you all can do it. So our campus visits team within weeks in conjunction with university marketing and our enrollment marketing team launched a [inaudible 00:16:36] video. And what we saw from other competitors' institutions was that they were kind of taking their old film reels like just old footage and throwing it up on their websites and saying, "This is what we look like. This what we feel like. This what we taste like." And Derek, we were like, "That's kind of tone deaf of us to do that." We're now wearing masks and at home and those Baylor students aren't even here. So to act like this is what it is isn't what it really is. So we did the opposite of all of our friends in higher ed and we sent out the it call, the real true call to hundreds of our colleagues, our faculty members and staff members and university officials and said, "Tell us why you believe in Baylor and give us a selfie video. We're going to edit it and throw them all up." And within I think two weeks we turned around a video that was so fresh and so different, and so real-time in this world. This is what Baylor means to me as we face the global pandemic. This is what Baylor means to me. Okay, so our film quality wasn't great, but our message was authentic and it was ourselves. And we offered a scholarship to students who watched the videos and they filled out a scholarship and said, "Why Baylor? You tell us in your own words why you want to go to Baylor." And we offered students huge scholarship money for watching our videos because we couldn't meet with them face-to-face. And it was a brilliant idea. And the Houston Chronicle called me in the Texas Tribune and said, "Tell us more." And it was just us being creative and being our true best Baylor selves that led us to ideas like that. Other things is that our staff literally has put in the time to do over 2000 Zoom interviews this year. That's an opportunity we didn't have when we were hosting big events, we're working at football games and recruiting students daily day in and day out. But with the opportunity if we're all at home with our computers, we can meet with you face-to-face and you're in Zoom school so you can meet with us. And so we've just done it. We just eked it out. Another idea is that we did a Zoom through BU Zoom tours, where we have our little shuttles that everyone sees running around campus all the time. But instead of having students on the shuttle and their parents from all over the U.S. we just took our cameras and said, "Do a selfie tour with a real live student and their parents and take them into all the buildings they want to see that are going to make a difference in their Baylor career." And so a lot of creativity. I mean, you could say it was divine inspiration, but it's also me believing that our team and I don't even mean this to exaggerate and I mean it honestly humbly. We are the best admissions shop in America. We're the best enrollment management team in the U.S. and in the globe. And I'm so thankful to go to work every day with the people that I get to work with.
Derek Smith:Well, you talk about that, then you look at the numbers over the last decade, Baylor has consistently grown. And not just grown, classes are more diverse, they're more academically qualified. You mentioned we've faced headwinds over the last few years. And certainly COVID-19 being another, I guess my point in that as you talk about the quality of our admissions shop here, which everyone agrees with this. Not every university can say the things that we're saying right now about record classes.
Jessica King Gereghty:We don't know another school that brought in a record class in COVID, I mean, we're friends with hundreds of universities and have networked with all of them and can call them up on our cell phones or send them texts in middle of the day, which we have to do. We have to be texting our friends at other universities and saying, "Our mail numbers are down. Are yours? Can we reverse it and how?" And really quite frankly, we have to be smarter than everybody else. We have a huge freshman class for an elite private school. So it's not easy. It's not simple. It's very complicated. We keep statisticians with PhDs on the edge of their seats all year trying to predict what's going to happen. And like I said in the beginning, it's art and a science and we have to lead with our head and our minds. And when I think of our team, we have master's degrees in business, master's degrees in DNA analysis. You think, "How does that translate to admissions?" Well, that kind of analytical skill is what's required for the job. We just have an amazing team of people that are really dedicated to what we believe is a really unique university that there's no one else like it in America or the globe. There's nothing like Baylor. There's nothing like our team. And we do work that really outperforms our colleagues by not just paying attention to them, but by paying attention to our students.
Derek Smith:I want to ask you about a couple of programs as you look for ways to bring students into the Baylor family, help them graduate sooner for them and their families. A couple of them we have, the Summer of Discovery program and the Accelerate program. Could you tell us just a little bit about what those are?
Jessica King Gereghty:I am a daughter of entrepreneurs and I consider myself an entrepreneurial education person. Those two worlds don't collide in the most natural of ways, but whatever it is, I have both of those interests at my heart at all times. So we've been wanting to venture out into new things. COVID gave us such a good window to try something new. And it was when we all went home in April. I was given the task and the challenge of saying like, "What is it going to take to get students to take Baylor courses this summer?" What I've been wanting to do is have like a high school summer program or online programs for students, no matter where they are in the world to take Baylor courses. And like I said, those global students to be a part of the Baylor family would try us out before even you have to make a decision and we launched Summer of Discovery last summer. And it was a collaborative idea from a lot of different sources, the provost office, marketing, your amazing vice president, my vice president, they all said, "Okay, go, go, go." We were headed into the unknown as a nation and as a globe and I just got to convince everyone if we could offer classes online, because we don't know if we'll be back or not. And if we could offer them at an affordable price and what if we don't just offer them to current Baylor students, we go deep into the funnel of students that I'm working on recruiting and say, "Try Baylor, make this grade point average, take this many hours, try a rigorous summer. And then we'll automatically accept you in the fall without having to worry about test scores," which were also a total unknown what would happen. And so we just experimented a way and came up with a great program. We had the highest summer in Baylor history. The average student took more hours than they ever had. More students applied for Baylor summer than ever before in history. Baylor faculty made great relationships with them. Over 200 of our incoming freshman class will have had a Baylor experience last summer, which does get them ahead. We learned so many good things. It was us taking a risk, but we had to with everything that we were facing. So we're excited. Accelerate is the pre-college program now. We came up with that term for this spring. The Honors College has joined with us. In the spring, we've got around 40 students taking Baylor classes right now while they're on Zoom high school and they'll have a Baylor transcript at the end of the semester. And then also we'll be offering Accelerate for the summer, fall and spring and times to come. We went ahead and decided that high, high, high achieving high school juniors should join us on this journey. So we're looking for almost straight A's juniors that can perform in their high school to say, "We want to take college classes in the summer as well." And then Baylor students will have an opportunity to continue Summer of Discovery. So that's incoming freshmen, sophomores, juniors to get ahead, to catch back up, whatever their family faced in the last year at a real good value to move into getting their degree and to keep moving ahead with that. And those are going to be offered mostly online. So that's the piece that's new that we learned from so much last summer.
Derek Smith:That's great, that's great. Well, that's great ways to bring people into the Baylor family for sure. So that's great. Well, Jessica King Gereghty, you and your team, I know the great work you all do, and it's exciting to see the numbers climb and for you to peel back the curtain a little bit for us to get a sense of what goes on in the admissions world and the challenges you faced. And I know a lot of people certainly we're all thankful for the work that you and your team do. So thank you very much for sharing that and for joining us today here on the program.
Jessica King Gereghty:Thanks, Derek. I appreciate it. And I can't speak enough to the team of people I get to work with and how amazing they are and how they really are fueled by our belief in Baylor and wanting to in the pandemic save jobs, and in the future produce the best graduates that we can for a great global impact.
Derek Smith:Thank you so much. Jessica King Gereghty, Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.