A tour makes a stop during the University of Akron's preview day. Photo: Amy Morona

Carmen Rush’s college search boils down to what she’s dubbed the “three D’s”: distance, dorms and diversity.

The rising senior at Elyria Catholic High School doesn’t want to go more than four hours away from her home in Lorain County. The on-campus place she’ll live once enrolled matters a lot, too. And a more multicultural student body is important as she finishes up at her predominantly white high school.

Lots of colleges fall within her distance parameters, including the roughly 30 higher education institutions in Northeast Ohio. How colleges pitch themselves to Rush and others could make a big difference in the competition for prospective students.

In July, she visited the University of Akron with her mom and a few family friends. She has completed more than half a dozen visits so far. The colleges seem to approach her almost as if they’re her friends, she said, before they tick down their list of selling points.

“I kind of see them as car salesmen,” she said.

For UA, like many of its peers across the region and nationwide, the outcome matters now more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic amplified enrollment struggles many were facing even before 2020 amid shifting demographics.

The university’s full-time total enrollment clocked in at about 23,200 in 2011, but 10 years later fell about 47% to 12,400.

There have been other headlines, too, moments that could potentially impact perceptions. Prior to Gary Miller taking over the top spot in 2019, the university had a merry-go-round of presidents. Two people, including a first-year student, were shot and killed in a neighborhood close to campus last fall. And earlier this summer, city police officers shot and killed Jayland Walker, igniting protests and national attention.

Clare Laffin, a tour guide at UA, said she hadn’t had any questions about Walker’s death from prospective students and families on the handful of tours she’s done in the weeks since. She thought there would be, though, so she prepared.

She’d tell them she lives downtown, too, and would point out she felt the university was relatively removed from the mostly peaceful protests. She’d mention that she personally feels safe on campus, would pepper in some points about the university’s police force.

It’s important to talk about this, she said, and would point to the campus organizations amplifying students of color who are advocating and sharing their voices. Working in this role has taught her not to shy away from tough questions.

“I try not to sugarcoat it and say something that’s not true,” she said. “But also, it’s not bad here, either. I just try to be as realistic as possible.”

The student-to-student connection is a cornerstone of the UA experience. Those currently enrolled can share what they’re studying, where they’re staying, what they’re eating. It can make it more real for others considering the campus to picture themselves there.

“The admissions counselors, the ‘adults,’ if you want to say that word, can only do so much,” said Allison Calderone, a 22-year-old UA tour guide. “They’ll say ‘this is what you can do as a student, this is what you can expect.’ But I think a lot of (prospective) students take that with a grain of salt until they hear from us, the current students.”

Steve McKellips, the university’s vice provost for enrollment management, knows the importance of those connections. He still remembers the name of his orientation leader at Marquette University from more than 30 years ago.

Even in the age of social media and video tours and fancy websites, he said from an administrator’s perspective the importance of getting people on campus “probably could not be more important.”

Droves of smiling university employees seemed to never be far during the preview day, one of several this summer. There were T-shirt tosses into the crowd during an information session. People walked around eating cookies in the shape of UA’s kangaroo mascot.

“The university tries to communicate to prospective students an element of ‘we’re all in this together,’ “ he said.

McKellips pushes back when asked whether the enrollment declines have expedited the need — or the urgency — for these types of detailed events or communications. They’re not doing things explicitly different now because of that, he said, but he does believe the pandemic spurred students and families to look for more of a partner in their educational journey.

The university as a whole needs to look out for students, take care of them, convey the things they need to know, he said.

“So it’s the university that functions in an interpersonal relationship,” he said. “Those of us who work here, we just all take turns being at the front of the line, interacting with those students in that capacity.”

On that day in July, for a minute, the director of admissions found themselves at that space. She introduced herself by first and last name to the small tour groups the university hosted after group informational sessions, wanting to put a face to the name that would be listed on the correspondence hitting their inboxes and mailboxes.

Nearly 170 students registered for that specific event; 120 actually showed up. Most were high schoolers, meaning the university’s courting of them could stretch over a period of up to 24 months

That includes Rush, the Lorain County senior visiting the university. The day marked the longest time she’d spent on a campus in this capacity. It made a difference. She said she loved meeting a variety of new people and the flow of the event.

“I really think UA is, like, pushing it,” she said. “And I really liked that. I really liked that sense of a community.”

Akron did move up on her list of power rankings after the preview day, she said. But the summer is long, and so is the list of other prospective colleges she’d like to visit before she applies and makes a decision.

The senior year search marches on for Rush and lots of other prospective students in her shoes. And, undoubtedly, officials at Akron can only cross their fingers and hope the conversations continue with them, too.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.