Pandemic pivot: Augustana makes personal connections, shows flexibility in admissions approach

May 22, 2020

This paid piece is sponsored by Augustana University.

Madeleine Ellis, Augustana’s director of undergraduate enrollment, knows that nothing compares to the real thing.

“So much of picking a college is about the gut feeling — the feeling you get when you walk on the campus. You get a sense of what the community is like, what the people are like, what the place feels like,” Ellis said.

But in mid-March, the biggest selling point for prospective students was taken off the table. Like many other higher education institutions trying to navigate a pandemic, that’s when Augustana made the decision to transition faculty and students to online instruction and require most of its employees to start working remotely. It also meant no in-person visits to campus and no Admitted Student Day — a day when Augustana helps high school students finalize their college decision.

“We had nearly 2,000 scheduled visitors for the spring and early summer that we had to cancel,” Ellis said.

In many ways, Augustana’s admissions team had to get creative – fast.

“It’s really hard to create that ‘gut-feeling’ virtually,” Ellis acknowledged.

Augustana has partnered with professors, the Student Success Center, as well as the registrar and financial aid offices to offer current and potential students appointments via Zoom at Now, rather than getting answers to questions via email, students and their families are receiving a more personalized experience.

“We’re doing everything we can to help students figure out what Augustana is all about on a virtual platform,” Ellis said. “For example, a high school junior can Zoom with a biology professor and talk about all of the different opportunities that Augustana has to offer specifically for their major, which is a hugely valuable experience.”

Assets COVID-19 can’t take away

In many ways, Augustana’s admissions team is staying the course. Unlike some larger institutions, they can continue to do the same things they’ve always been doing — providing individualized experiences and making those genuine connections with students.

“Your admission counselor wants to get to know you. They’re going to call you. They’re going to text you. They want to know how they can best serve you throughout this process,” Ellis said. “It is not a passive relationship. We genuinely want to get to know our students and provide as much support as we possibly can.”

Augustana also continues to use some of its most valuable resources to recruit prospective students, like its location.

“We’re really in the sweet spot of Sioux Falls being big enough with lots of opportunities and small enough for us to have great connections, which is ideal in terms of outside-the-classroom learning opportunities like internships,” Ellis said.

In light of COVID-19, Augustana also is finding that many Sioux Falls students are rethinking their college decisions and considering the possibility of staying closer to home.

“We really want to make sure that our Sioux Falls students know that if you’re re-evaluating your options and looking for a place closer to home, we want Augustana to be an option for you,” Ellis said.

At a time when it matters most, Augustana truly can boast an amazing track record when it comes to its job placement rate.

“Students and families have to make really hard decisions about how to invest their time and resources always, but especially right now. Now more than ever, a degree at a place like Augustana, which is going to hold its value and prepare students for whatever comes next in a really tumultuous economic market, is a smart investment,” Ellis said.

Augustana also has stayed true to its core values when it comes to helping its international students. The university has been committed to housing international students who haven’t been able to return home while also providing them with essential needs.

And when it comes to selling a university, there’s nothing that can replace genuine student stories.

“We want prospective students and future students to connect with our current students. They are the ones that have experienced the community and can talk about that first-hand and share some of their own experiences.”

‘Fight for you’ attitude leads to student’s big decision

Margaret Samp is a senior at New Technology High School in Sioux Falls and a soon-to-be political science major who hopes to minor in business and music at Augustana in the fall of 2020. The aspiring lawyer and opera singer pretty much grew up on campus, studying classical voice with Dr. Lisa Grevlos, an Augustana professor, since she was 9 years old.

Her parents are alumni, along with her grandparents and great-grandparents. But for Samp, Augustana was the safe choice, not one she thought she wanted.

“That was one of the reasons I didn’t want to go to Augie because I would be so close to home,” said Samp, smiling. “I had it narrowed down to KU (Kansas University), a college in Canada and Augustana. I applied to all of them and got accepted, and I was like, ‘Oh great, now what?’ ”

Samp said that after a lot of prayer it came down to a couple of things, with one being her strong connection with her admission counselor — they bonded over hockey.

“Every time I went to an event, I always got a handwritten note sent to me, or on my birthday, I got a card, an email, a phone call. It was just more personal, a more personal connection. It was unlike the other schools with the admission process. It was ‘Message me anytime you feel like’ and Thomas (Elness) reaching out asking me, ‘Did you submit this? Did you get this done on time?’ ”

Samp said several professors from Augustana also helped with her decision.

“Just the way that they were fighting for me – I know that even with my dyslexia I will still have the support of the staff and that personal connection with them. And I know that Lisa will still challenge me. I have been with her for nine years now, and I always continue to progress. There hasn’t been a plateau in my singing.”

And one last thing – that gut feeling.

Samp said simply, “It just didn’t seem right to go to those other schools.”

Small details make a big difference

“We’re really hearing from students that they’re mourning the loss of their senior year,” Ellis said.

To help relieve some of the pressure prospective students are experiencing, Augustana has reopened all its scholarship opportunities. Historically, the university’s biggest scholarship opportunities wrap up in early spring, but any student can still apply to Augustana for free at 

“Students will still be considered for all of Augustana’s top scholarships,” Ellis said. “Your personal admission counselor will walk you through the process and help you find scholarship opportunities.”

Students also are concerned because their plans for testing have been canceled. For example, the SAT and the ACT have canceled many of their testing dates because of COVID-19, but that’s not a concern for those who want to apply at Augustana.

The university already had been a test-optional school, which means Augustana evaluates applications on a holistic basis. If students don’t feel like a test score is an adequate reflection of their academic performance and their ability to be successful, they can choose to submit answers to essay questions. This gives Augustana  a better sense of the students, what they’re going to bring to the table and how the university can best serve them.

Augustana is also on a rolling admission basis, which means that it does not have a hard-and-fast deadline for admission.

“This rolling admission basis is really nice because if a student is reconsidering their college plans or hasn’t yet applied to college, they can still apply at Augustana up until the late summer,” Ellis said.

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Pandemic pivot: Augustana makes personal connections, shows flexibility in admissions approach

Personal relationships, virtual admissions sessions and lots of flexibility for recent graduates are helping Augustana give prospective students a feel for what the university is all about.

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