Selling GW coast to coast: Regional admissions directors recruit highschoolers

For three months every year, Joe Greenberg is a traveling salesman. His best-selling product: higher education.

From his home in Boston, Greenberg drives more than 20,000 miles a year, meeting high school students and educating them about GW. He sleeps in cheap hotels, wakes up early and travels during the weekend, he said, so he can visit more schools everyday. His wife even accompanies him now because he is on the road so often.

It’s the life of a regional admissions director.

“The best part of the job is that I have such a great product to sell,” said Greenberg, who used to teach graduate classes at GW. He has been GW’s regional director for New England since the regional admissions program began in 1998. Today, there are six regional directors based around the country.

Unlike the admissions staff in Rice Hall, Greenberg works from his house and sets his own hours. His flexible schedule and proximity allow him to form much tighter bonds with prospective applicants, he said.

“I’ve been going to the same schools for nine years, and I know everybody in every school I visit,” Greenberg said, referring to college counselors. He travels to 150 high schools each fall – sometimes four a day – speaking firsthand with students about the opportunities in Foggy Bottom.

GW is one of the only schools of its kind that has regional admissions directors in addition to traveling personnel based in Washington, D.C.. It is a necessary position, admissions officers said, because each area of the United States has a completely different culture.

In the past 20 years, GW has grown rapidly from a commuter school to a major national University. As its coast-to-coast presence continues to expand, figures show that states with regional directors have the largest increases in enrollment.

Custom service

Jennifer Taylor, the regional director in Illinois, said she forms better relationships because of her Midwestern background.

“We’re Sox fans. We’re Cubs fans. We’re going to Navy Pier. We’re doing Midwest types of things,” Taylor said. “There is a comfort level that you’re going to achieve with that sort of familiarity.”

She said she has established relationships with many college counselors who now think of GW when recommending schools to students. This can sometimes be difficult, Taylor said, especially when people do not want to leave their local area.

Since 1999, enrollment at GW from Illinois has more than doubled, while the total undergraduate population has increased by about 42 percent, according to University records.

In Atlanta, college counselor Missy Sanchez at Woodward High School said regional directors make her more at ease when recommending a school to her students. She looks forward to when Carol Conchar, the regional director in Atlanta, visits her campus.

“To give a child a name and say, ‘Talk to her,’ it just makes them feel more comfortable,” Sanchez said. “I think it’s tremendous being able to have that.”

Sanchez recalled one instance when her regional director spoke to a student who wanted to go to art school. Conchar, who herself attended art school, recommended some schools – though they weren’t GW.

“That kind of thing makes you really respect her,” Sanchez said.

Honesty and communication are important and paramount in Conchar’s job. She said she enjoys e-mailing students to tell them she liked an essay they wrote.

“I like people to know that there’s a human being on the other side of the process,” Conchar said.

After meeting with students, performing interviews and reading applications, Conchar said she identifies several applicants and advocates for them at committee meetings back in Foggy Bottom.

“Sometimes my recommendation is not the recommendation that the committee makes,” Conchar said. “Sometimes it doesn’t happen my way, and I have to accept that.”

Christina Bhattacharya, a senior at Agoura Hills High School in California who will attend GW next year, said the regional director in California – Jill Gully – convinced her to apply early decision. She also spoke with Mira Page, a GW parent.

“It wasn’t until I started talking to Mira and Jill that I took the time to research the school for myself,” Bhattacharya said, adding that she never felt pressured to apply.

“I never felt that (Jill) was pushing GW on me, it was more like she answered what I wanted to know. I never felt like they were selling a product,” Bhattacharya said.

As states across the U.S. send more students to GW, California has shown the most rapid growth in undergraduate domestic student enrollment.

Taking the initiative

Despite other universities having regional directors, GW is one of only two schools in its “market basket” to have the position. The other is Southern Methodist University in Dallas, which has four regional directors. A market-basket school is an institution that is in a metropolitan area with a similar undergraduate population, a University spokesman said.

The decision to create the regional offices was two-fold, said Undergraduate Admissions Director Kathryn Napper. “Not only were we interested in increasing applications,” Napper wrote in an e-mail, “but (we) wanted to better service applicants throughout the country.”

There are offices in Boston, Atlanta, Southern Virginia, Northern New Jersey, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Robert Chernak, senior vice president of Student and Academic Support Services, said the placement of the directors is strategic.

“We have placed regional directors in areas where interest in GW is already high, is growing or has the potential to grow,” Chernak wrote in an e-mail.

Since the D.C. government caps undergraduate enrollment due to zoning restrictions, Chernak said he hopes to use the University’s national presence to garner interest about lesser-known areas of study.

“Our strategy for moving forward is to increase interest in programs that are currently under-enrolled and where capacity exists for expansion,” Chernak said. He cited the sciences, engineering and technology as areas for improvement.

Napper said a greater emphasis on the South, specifically Texas, is the next focus for regional expansion.

Total coverage

Speaking of GW’s days as a commuter and night school, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said the institution is 88 percent out of that phase.

It takes time, he said, for any school to attain complete national presence.

“When you change an institution, you have to go through two generations of people – both faculty and students – until the mindset of the institution is formed.”

Many different departments in the University have spurred expansion, said Trachtenberg, whose nearly two-decade-long tenure ends July 31. He noted that sports such as men’s basketball have greatly contributed to the University’s recognition around the country.

Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group that advocates fair college admissions, said that national prominence should not be every school’s first priority.

“The jury’s still out on the idea that nationalization has educational payoffs, especially when on the other side of the equation you weigh these costs,” Thacker said.

Colleges should beware spending too much money on recruitment at the expense of academics, Thacker added.

“I can tell you that there are a lot of regional institutions where a lot more education is going on than at national institutions,” Thacker said.

Greenberg, regional director for Boston, contends that GW has a lot to offer, including its education. He said Trachtenberg’s expansion of the University has been entirely beneficial.

“Twenty years from now, he will be seen if not as the most creative University presidents of his time, then one of the top three,” Greenberg said. “Here is a guy who is a risk-taker. He puts it out there with his name, and takes responsibility for it and takes the blame for it.”

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