Montecito college attracts high-achieving students
Irene Neller always knew Westmont College was an impressive school.
She worked at other private Christian colleges in California but was thrilled when her son was accepted into Westmont.
When her son returned home for Christmas break with an air of maturity, she wrote President Dr. Gayle Beebe a thank-you note. She was so impressed. Then, two years later and with her son’s permission, she joined the college as vice president of enrollment, marketing and communications.
“Being in higher ed, I always knew about Westmont and knew it was one of the crown jewels of private Christian higher education,” she told the News-Press.
Westmont College stacks up nicely in national rankings and secured its place in the top 7% of Payscale’s 2020 Best Universities and Colleges by Salary Potential. The college enrolled a high-achieving class of 2024 even under the pressure of COVID-19.
So how does it do it? Is it the picturesque Montecito campus? The successful athletic programs?
Westmont faculty had a variety of answers when asked about its recipe for success.
“We’re not aiming to get bigger and bigger but to do what we do really well,” Dr. Jesse Covington, professor and director of the Augustinian Scholars Program, told the News-Press. “Excellence rather than growth is my aim for the future.”
Westmont is obligated to stay under 1,200 students, he said.
“Sometimes you focus on how many students and lose sight of the quality of them, which matters,” Mrs. Neller said.
She focuses on the niche of a Christian, liberal arts college and said it’s easier to identify and connect with prospective students.
“The more you can hone in on your narrative and separate yourself, you’ll attract students that are a good fit,” she said.
Prominent Christian musicians Lecrae and Phil Wickham surprised 2020 graduates with a virtual ceremony and concert. Westmont heavily promoted the event on its social media platforms.
Bible verses are woven throughout the site, and scholarships are aimed at intellectual and spiritual development.
There’s a scholarship that offers full room and board to two outstanding members of the Greater Los Angeles region of Young Life, a Christian youth organization.
The Augustinian Scholars Program, a scholarship and honors program offered to 60 incoming students, seeks to make Westmont financially accessible to top-tier students and provide curriculum surrounding Christian tradition.
“Students have told me that it makes a good education accessible to them,” Dr. Covington said. “But it’s also about spiritual formation, where the intellectual meets the existential.”
The newest class of Augustinian Scholars has an average weighted GPA of 4.5 and an average of 1500 on the SAT exam.
The college also offers a few automatic scholarships based on GPA and ACT/SAT scores. Vice President Neller said the scholarships help attract more students.
“Word gets out among high school counselors and educators that are assisting high school students, and they start recommending Westmont,” she said.
The school also has a good local reputation among companies looking for new talent. According to its website, 96.2% of Westmont alumni are employed or pursuing a graduate degree within six months of graduation.
Paul Bradford, director of career development and calling, said internships and Westmont’s faculty help launch students into their next step.
There’s an 11 to one student-faculty ratio, and over 80% of faculty hold a doctorate degree.
The career center is an optional service to students, but Mr. Bradford works to reach students. He holds events, like Women in Technology night, and has students serve as ambassadors to the career center.
COVID-19 made him and other Westmont staff see the need for an assigned role with students. He hopes to start guiding students their first and second years on campus.
Fall 2019 was the largest enrollment the college had seen. Fall 2020 was on track to beat it, but COVID-19 caused students to delay attending school.
To try to give prospective students the experience of a college tour, Mrs. Neller rounded up a team to do one-on-one tours of campus through video chat. They were available all day and could even give tours on weekends and nights.
She even hosted virtual events, like a Mother’s Day event that connected prospective Westmont moms to current ones to answer questions.
Even through COVID-19 stresses, 375 students enrolled as the Class of 2024. The group has an average weighted GPA of 3.98, up from 3.88.
Students moved in Wednesday with masks and social distancing protocols. (The campus has six residence halls.)
“Only four weeks in on virtual learning and I can already tell my professors all care about everyone’s success,” freshman Laila Saenz said. “And I feel like if I ever need help with anything, I can ask anyone from the school.”