BVU Admissions, Through a Pandemic


Blake McMillan

Orientation Team member Brayden Bergum with incoming freshmen admitted to BVU during the pandemic.

Blake McMillan

Before the pandemic, the college admissions process had been perfected to a science. Students and parents looked for programs they loved, they planned a campus tour, filled out the FAFSA, and even tried cafeteria food. That is, until spring 2020. At Buena Vista University, the day that the school closed due to COVID-19, the admissions office was dramatically altered.

“Distinctly, on a Wednesday at noon,” Conner Ellinghuysen, BVU’s Director Admissions recalled the spring 2020 day. “We had to change everything on a dime. I had [admissions counselors] starting to talk about creating a video tour of campus.” He remembers epping into the admissions lounge around 2 p.m. that spring day before an official announcement came out from BVU. “I said, ‘Folks, I need you to stop planning and start filming.’” The next day, his entire staff was declared non-essential, and Ellinghuysen had the entire admissions suite to himself.

“They don’t write a book on how to manage a staff during a pandemic,” Ellinghuysen said. But he did, communicating with them throughout the spring and summer. Together they learned how to use Zoom to teach students and parents about campus life, financial aid, and unity during a pandemic. “We want them to know we truly do care. Every college says ‘you’re not a number’ but they don’t show that. We chose to go a different path and talk about feelings. You know? ‘How are you feeling?’ We were constantly checking in on incoming and potential students and asking them how they were feeling.”

Incoming freshmen were allowed on campus on June 14, 15, and 28 2021 for orientation. (Blake McMillan)

Was it successful?

Ellinghuysen’s report says that there were 40 fewer applicants from prospective freshmen during the 2020-2021 admissions cycle compared to 2019-2020. However, BVU accepted 159 more students, explained Ellinghuysen, crediting the transition to test optional and fewer documents to submit. Conversion rate — taking a student from the applicant phase to decision—has therefore been higher for BVU for the fall 2021 incoming class.

Drake University’s Assistant Director of First-Year Recruitment Lisa Flynn also offered data on how the pandemic affected the Des Moines-based private school for fall 2021. While BVU saw 40 fewer applicants, freshmen applications at Drake increased by 19%. Their acceptances were similar to BV’s conversion rate, though. According to Flynn, Drake experienced a 22% increase from 2020.

In terms of diversity, BVU’s Multicultural Enrollment Advisor Jenelle Martin reported that 28% of students accepted for Fall 2021 are black and indigenous people of color (BIPOC). Forty-three percent are first-generation students, with 25% of those identifying as first-generation Hispanic students. This is down by 2% from 2019-2020, but compared to Drake, it is still higher. At Drake, 26% identify as students of color and 22% identify as first-generation.

Meanwhile, at BVU, of incoming freshmen, 57% are male, while 43% are female. This is only one percent off from Drake’s 58% male to 42% female ratio, both schools being male dominated.

Statistics on non-binary students at BVU are unavailable. “On the Admissions side, due to federal regulations we are only allowed to ask about gender in very specific ways, and students do not have to reply to the question.” Martin explained. “To be honest, the responses are not specific enough to tell us if a person is truly non-binary or if they simply do not wish to respond.” Rylee Walters, Pierce-White Area Coordinator, was unable to provide any specific data from housing applications of incoming freshmen that are non-binary, stating that “We get student data from the admissions pool.” Drake University also had no data concerning non-binary students, most likely for the same federal reasons provided by Martin.

Kristen Fox is one of four Academic Liaisons at BVU, serving for the School of Liberal Arts. “This is our first time we had to tell students about what college will be like without them being here to see it,” she explained. “You never want to mislead a person and you never want to tell a lie, but it’s hard to tell them what college will be like when you don’t know.” Despite the difficult recruitment process, Fox praises the incoming class. “I think this next incoming class is very resilient because they had to go through the college admissions process during COVID, which is already pretty stressful.”

Ellinghuysen agreed — “I think if BV hadn’t opened last year and didn’t have in-person classes there would be more hesitancy from incoming classes.”

The resilience is backed by numbers, as BVU President Dr. Brian Lenzmeier points out. According to Lenzmeier, this year’s incoming class is the biggest in ten years. “High school GPA is also the highest it’s been in ten years,” he added. Lenzmeier shared data that showed the average high school GPA of the last decade 3.41; the incoming class holds an average 3.52.

Following 2020’s virtual orientation, campus leaders wrestled with having the applicants on campus this summer for an in-person orientation. Sami Kay is the Assistant Director of Admissions, who helped lead orientation. Her hope was that the event would be in-person for the incoming class. “We always kept it in the back our mind that it would be virtual.”

When campus was opened back up in August 2020, Director of Community and Student Engagement Erica Swanson began meeting with Kay to prepare planning. “There were meetings to discuss safety protocols, having students from all over to travel campus,” explained Kay. “Families and students were required to wear masks while they were here.”

So the show must go on. For the next year of admissions, Ellinghuysen has learned from the pandemic. BVU will remain test optional, the online tours are not going anywhere, and the check-ins are being continued as well. “For most schools, personalization is putting out a message and adding the student’s name to the greeting. We’re trying to get to know our students on a more personalized level. What clubs are they involved in? What activities? Sports? Academics? It’s all to better tailor our messaging to that specific student,” he said.

As part of what Ellinghuysen calls ‘hyper-personalization,’ admissions will also begin going out to high school campuses to host different ‘College Days and Nights’ events. “In August, we might be talking about visiting college campuses, and then in September we might be talking about applying to college campuses.” Ellinghuysen stressed that these events will not be forceful recruiting events, but a general college helpline endorsed by BVU. “We’re inviting families and community members to come hear that message, and we’re not necessarily talking about BV, but the college search process in general.”

The pandemic may have brought a wave of problems for admissions offices everywhere. But at BVU, admissions survived and even prepared ahead for 2021-2022 — with the help of a little hyper-personalization and a lot of Zoom calls.