The biggest obstacles in Creighton University's recruiting efforts outside the Midwest can be summed up in two questions. What is Creighton? And where is Creighton?
To answer the first question, the university has launched a national ad campaign highlighting its mission-oriented approach to education.
The Creighton Bluejays are helping answer the second question on the basketball court.
A move this year to the Big East Conference has led to most games being televised nationally from Omaha's CenturyLink Center. The Jays, at 13-2 overall and 3-0 in the conference, are considered a contender to win the league. They host Xavier at 2 p.m. today.
The university says it is already seeing results off the court by capitalizing on the exposure. Students on campus and elsewhere are energized. Alumni chapters nationwide are rejuvenated. Recruiting efforts are showing early results.
And the university is seeing signs that its marketing push is imprinting on countless people hearing Creighton's name for the first time.
“We've been known here in the Midwest very well,” said Carol Ash, associate vice president of marketing at Creighton. “This move helps us create a much broader footprint for the university.”
Creighton has long topped U.S. News & World Report's list of private institutions in the Midwest, a fact the university touts in pregame introductions. But its athletic competitors in the Missouri Valley Conference weren't the same colleges that Creighton has squared off with in the classroom, said Mary Chase, associate vice president of enrollment management.
“Our academic profile places us in the top 10 Catholic institutions in the country,” Chase said. “Now we're competing with them not only on an academic level but also on an athletic level.”
Chase has started to focus on Big East-area markets when she recruits, with plans to snag more of the top students in Chicago, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C., and Providence, R.I. — though Chase said the Omaha region remains CU's top priority. About 65 percent of students come from within 200 miles of the campus.
Numbers alone make the recruiting opportunities stronger than when Creighton was in the Missouri Valley Conference, Chase said. CU has fared well in drawing students from Hawaii and California but hasn't been as widely known in the populous cities on the Big East.
“It's views on a billboard in Chicago or D.C. or even in Omaha versus what we're going to get potentially in Cedar Falls, Iowa, or Wichita, Kansas,” Chase said.
New student applications were already up more than 80 percent by December's priority scholarship deadline, she said.
The ads running nationally during basketball games highlight the sorts of students Creighton hopes to attract — the thinkers, the leaders, the healers, the visionaries — and promise to provide critical thinking skills and ways to make meaningful contributions.
Brand research conducted by Creighton in 2013 showed that its most prevalent attributes are connected to the way it helps students develop a strong sense of purpose.
Chase expects slow and steady growth, but she said there's no target enrollment number. The university won't be changing its application criteria.
With the spike in applications, she projects 50 more freshmen in 2014 than in 2013, when the freshman class grew by 20 over the previous year.
Part of the message Creighton leaders also hope is getting across on Fox Sports: Omaha isn't cows and corn, despite what viewers might have heard.
“Omaha is often a barrier,” Chase said. “Once they can get over the hump of realizing this is a metro area with opportunity, then Creighton becomes an option for them.”
Marketing Omaha is always a challenge, but it becomes easier as the city gets more national exposure, said Karla Ewert, Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce spokeswoman.
“As more and more people are paying attention to Creighton, it opens up awareness about Omaha,” Ewert said.
Anyone tuning in to the New Year's Eve game against Marquette University, Creighton's first conference game, saw 18,000-plus fans in blue and white and a boisterous student section cheering the Bluejays to a 67-49 victory. That atmosphere can be felt on campus, too, where students see themselves as part of the historic season.
“The magnitude of excitement definitely went up,” said Creighton junior Hannah Schumaker, 20, of the conference move.
Schumaker was one of hundreds of students who spent hours on New Year's Eve lined up in the hallway outside the CenturyLink Center box office.
A long line for seats in the student section is not new, and neither is a sellout crowd; Creighton has averaged the sixth-highest attendance in the NCAA for the past two years. But since joining the Big East, CU is now fourth in attendance, trailing only Syracuse, Kentucky and Louisville.
Some out-of-state students said that when they went home for the holidays, Creighton's name was more often met with recognition.
“When I go home now, people say yes, Creighton in Nebraska,” said Sam King, a dental student from Spokane, Wash.
And in Chicago, where dental student Chris Degrande is from, the ripple effect is clear.
“For the first time, I've heard about people at home applying to Creighton,” Degrande said.
The move also means that some out-of-state alumni and online students are spurred to new levels of involvement.
Peter Gabriel grew up a Bluejay basketball fan because his father attended Creighton, and Gabriel is now a CU student himself. But he had never been to a game until this year, when he saw his Bluejays in Philadelphia against St. Joseph.
Gabriel, who lives in Exton, Pa., is enrolled in the online educational doctorate program. Following the basketball team has given him a feeling of camaraderie that was hard to capture from off campus before.
“My friends and I from the program now are texting each other during the games,” he said. “I went to an alumni reception at the game with my parents, and it was all Creighton people. It was fun to be around so many people with that connection to the school.”
Already, Rick Virgin, Creighton's vice president for university relations, said he's seen more requests from alumni groups for programming and more alums sending in updated contact information. Instead of occasional cocktail events and community service projects, Virgin said groups are trying book clubs and panel discussions in cities with larger alumni groups like Washington, D.C.
They're also using the contacts to draw more alumni into recruiting tasks: calling admitted students in their area, inviting them to events and conducting scholarship interviews.
When students talk to graduates, they see what Creighton has to offer, Virgin said.
“Part of the magic that happens is they see this crowd of very engaged, successful and interesting people,” Virgin said. “They want to be a part of that.”
The university also plans to beef up its services for Creighton alumni and will staff a booth at the Big East Conference Tournament in March for networking help and career advice. Alumni shouldn't be hard to find in New York City that weekend; two months before the tournament, Creighton is already leading in ticket sales.