Jim Hundrieser said magic takes place at the University of Montana, and he wants prospective students and parents to see it plainly.
"There are so many great things happening here," Hundrieser said. "How do we bring this to life in a way that is crystal clear to … all of our prospective students?
"… How do we put that into context for students and parents?"
Hundrieser, the third of four finalists UM interviewed as its enrollment and communications vice president, said Monday that UM doesn't have to be the biggest school in the state to attract students. And Hundrieser, who has worked as an enrollment consultant for UM on two contracts in the last six months, said he's attracted to a permanent post at the flagship partly because it would be for him the "great western adventure."
Mostly, though, he said it's because he wants to interact again with students. He also wants to help them talk with each other so that UM's message is best represented and understood.
"I've missed students. They have been the best part of my work," said Hundrieser, currently an associate managing principal at the Association of Governing Boards, Institutional Strategies, or AGBIS. "And I would really like to see a model that has us using students in many more creative ways to help us understand the message."
In direct response to a student at the public forum, Hundrieser said students are key because they understand each other best: "I know and the data tells me that your peers want to hear from you way more than they want to hear from me."
Hundrieser also shared a particular challenge he faced when he served as vice president for enrollment management and student affairs at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire from 2012 to 2016.
At the time, the state cut funding some 50 percent, and the school increased tuition by $2,000 to $9,900, he said. In the first year, he said enrollment held up because there wasn't much time for students to change their minds.
But then the campus saw a drop, and Hundrieser said they had to change the way they approached recruitment. They learned to improve their communication with students, they retooled the student experience from top to bottom, they redesigned their tours, and they scrutinized the best way to use financial aid.
"We figured out in that year how to be last in the mailbox to first in the mailbox," said Hundrieser, whose resume notes he has a doctoral degree in leadership and education from Barry University in Florida.
They also moved from a "show and tell" recruitment strategy where the environment was key to one focused on academics, he said. It meant a lot of the professionals in academics had to work on Saturdays to talk with students, but he said the engagement between faculty and students and their families was critical.
He earlier shared the results of the efforts at Plymouth: The freshman class had declined to some 800, and he helped push the figure to 1,400 one year and 1,250 the next, both record highs for the university.
As UM works on enrollment, Hundrieser said it faces "clutter" in the conversation about the value of higher education, and it also must work on reaffirming its commitment to students throughout their academic careers.
Hundrieser said he's a first-generation college student, and he had complete trust that he would have a positive outcome from going to college. However, he said despite data that show the investment in a degree remains worthwhile, students are challenging that idea.
So he said students coming to UM must receive a sense of the impact the education will have on their lives.
He said employers, for one, are saying they want workers who have the skills UM teaches: "We're looking for critical thinkers, highly communicative students who can work in teams." So he said UM must help students understand that value.
Hundrieser also said sophisticated people in the marketplace understand what it means to be a premier flagship research institution, but UM needs to dissect what that means specifically at its campus for students looking at particular programs.
These days, prospective students are evaluating a school and shopping for a university long before the campus is actively communicating with them, he said. He said they also might pay a deposit at UM as well as another school, a new pattern of involvement, so UM must continue to reaffirm their decision early on and even through their first couple of years.
"There is so much more we need to be doing in that first summer of involvement," said Hundrieser, whose resume notes he has a master's degree in education, administration and supervision from Plymouth State College.
In his resume, Hundrieser notes other achievements in higher education, including building financial models as a consultant that have generated $5 million to $100 million in revenue. The enrollment decline at UM has affected its budget.
At Plymouth, he also identified work with the community. In his resume, he noted he opened a food pantry for students and local residents, and it "remains a stable source of resources" for the community.
Prior to his work at Plymouth, Hundrieser worked at Noel-Levitz from 2008 to 2012, where he eventually was named vice president and led the strategic enrollment planning consulting team, hitting client satisfaction rates of 4.8 out of 5 points, according to his resume.
Hundrieser, whose resume notes he holds an undergraduate degree from Northern Michigan University, said he hasn't been part of a flagship or premier research institution, and he's intrigued by the strengths of UM.
"You are not perfect, I hate to tell you, and I am not perfect," Hundrieser said. "And I know you will see more of my imperfections if I'm chosen to be here exponentially as time progresses."
But he said he sees great opportunities at UM, and he wants to be part of solving its puzzle.
The fourth and final candidate is scheduled for an interview this week. William Plate, vice president of university communication and chief marketing officer at Coastal Carolina University, will present at a public forum from 4 p.m. to 5:15 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, in the UC Theater. UM also interviewed two candidates last week.
The search committee meets Friday and aims to determine acceptable candidates and present them to President Seth Bodnar.