Faculty and staff at Muskegon Community College in Michigan used to avoid George Maniates, knowing the campus official would ask them to call students as tuition deadlines approached. Now, a new automated phone program let the college place more than 1,000 calls to those students this summer, proving far more effective than the antiquated manual system.
Muskegon is one of about 90 colleges and universities nationwide that uses the phone alert system that calls students, leaves messages if they don’t answer, and gives them an option to speak with a campus representative about when tuition payments are due. This has trimmed schools’ "melt rates" — that is, the number of students who place deposits on college courses but don’t attend classes, because they missed crucial payment dates.
Muskegon officials have seen the campus’s "melt rate" reduced by more than one-third. Before buying the automated phone system — made by Indianapolis-based voice messaging company Vontoo — for an annual fee of $8,000, the college had to trim 375 students from its rolls because they missed payment deadlines. That number declined to 244 this summer.
Calling more than 2,000 students simultaneously — as the Muskegon did Aug. 4 — with the voice system has been far more popular than the agonizing one-student-at-a-time system of years past, Maniates said.
"We used to just put people on the phone with these long phone lists," said Maniates, associate vice president of student services at the college, adding that students can press a button during the automated call and speak with an enrollment representative. "It was painful. People would be running for the restroom, or out of the door for a smoke, even if they didn’t smoke, just to avoid me."
The declining economy has exacerbated "melt rates" in higher education over the past year. Those rates hovered around 5 percent before the current recession, but many colleges and universities have seen that number creep toward the 10 percent mark, slashing tuition collection as colleges are faced with across-the-board budgetary cutbacks.
Maniates said Muskegon Community College collected about $115,000 in tuition payments from students who had made deposits and were alerted by the automated phone calls before payment deadlines past. The college will make 55,000 automated calls with the Vontoo system this year, he said.
"You can’t dismiss this kind of tool," he said. "This has saved us a tremendous amount of time and effort."
Campus enrollments are increasing, especially at community colleges, so if a student loses a spot in a popular class, the empty seat is often immediately filled. Maniates said Muskegon projects a fall enrollment of 5,700, a 25 percent hike since last fall.
"We have extensive wait lists this year," he said. "Those are classes that [students] won’t be able to get back."
Concern about climbing "melt rates" was evident in a recent article on a blog maintained by the Vanderbilt University Admissions Office. Increasing "melts rates" have forced campus officials to guess how many deposits to accept in the months before every semester.
"Colleges will often accept more deposits and/or take more from their waitlist in order to guard against their anticipated summer melt," the June 15 blog post said. "Project wrong on your melt, and you can end up either over- or under-enrolling the class."
Tyler Wilson, a spokesman for Vontoo, said the transfer feature that lets students speak with campus officials has become a popular option since higher education adopted the technology in 2007.
Between 5 and 10 percent of students who answer the call press a button to speak with a live person, he said. Students often have complex questions about how financial aid ties into their tuition payments, Maniates said.
Admissions officials can record their own automated calls that can express "empathy" for the students’ financial predicament, but make clear the consequences of missing tuitions due dates, Wilson said.
"It’s a lot more urgent than mailing [or electronic messaging]," Wilson said.
Muskegon Community College