Enrollment concerns board members
Citing "serious concerns" about enrollment at Marshall University, members of the university’s Board of Governors had plenty of questions for Beth Wolfe, Marshall's director of recruitment, during her presentation at Wednesday's regular board meeting in the Memorial Student Center on campus.
Wolfe stood before the board for almost one hour, including her own 20-minute presentation, addressing some board members' unease with current enrollment numbers.
She told board members that the university has sustained a 32.6 percent increase in applications and a 14 percent increase in first-time freshman enrollment during the five-year period between 2009 and 2013, compared to the five years prior to 2009.
She said the smallest incoming freshman class enrolled for the fall semester of 2006, and she said there has been a steady increase since that time.
Prior to her presentation, Dr. Joseph Touma set the tone in introducing Wolfe.
"Several board members are concerned about the situation with the negative enrollment we have been having," Touma said. "I want to tell you, Beth Wolfe, that doesn't mean that we don't trust you and we trust your advancement in what you're doing. There are serious concerns because the health of this university, the viability, the financial viability of this university depends on your team and all of us."
Following her presentation featuring enrollment numbers and recruitment strategies, board member and former state Sen. Oshel Craigo asked questions about recruiting at high schools and how Wolfe and her staff maintain relationships with high schools, specifically, their counselors.
"In almost all of the organizations I've even been involved with, developing those relationships is extremely important," Craigo said. "In the real world, you develop the relationships you make, and if we're not developing these relationships, we're making a big mistake."
Craigo's comments came after a previous question to Wolfe revealed that there is a high rate of turnover among the five recruiter positions at Marshall.
She said the average tenure for a recruiter at the school is two years due, in large part, to the demands of the job, which includes a large amount of travel.
Marshall President Stephen Kopp agreed with Craigo that visits to and relationships with high schools were important, but he said the functionality of schools has changed in a way that has affected how recruiters do their jobs.
He said the increase in school safety and the emphasis on instructional time have meant a shift in school accessibility.
"There isn't unlimited access to go and talk to students during all hours of school," Kopp said. "The question is, 'How do you balance all of this?' Relationships are important, yet, at the same time, putting more resources into it, where you can't get more access, won't change the outcome."
"What that is challenging to me is figuring out what resources she (Wolfe) needs, and our job is to provide the resources she needs.”
While recruitment strategies do still focus on high school visits from recruiters as well as university representatives, including Kopp, Wolfe said her office has been catering to the new generation of students by focusing on Internet accessibility, campus visits and updating communications strategies accordingly.
"Studies done on the topic show that counselors rank very low in a student's college decision," Wolfe said. "They are basing their decision on campus visits, coming here and meeting people, and we are focusing on keeping our relationships with students. They are captains of that ship in terms of the decision, so we are focusing on those relationships."
In other business at the meeting, the board accepted an audit finance report for the 2012-2013 fiscal year prepared by the accounting firm of Deloitte & Touche LLC.
Deloitte and Touche partner Dennis Juran said the university ended the year with $26.1 million in unrestricted net assets, which was an increase over the previous year.
He said the university's unrestricted net assets account for about 40 percent of the university's operating expenditures, which he listed as the biggest success for the budget.
"From a financial perspective, it's certainly strong at this point in time," Juran said. "There were no material weaknesses."
Juran said that he would urge board officials to be cognizant of the state budget cuts that will go into effect for the 2014-2015 fiscal year.
"The fact that funding has been reduced on a state level for 2014-2015, I would call that a weakness," Juran said. "I would call that something you guys need to work on, replacing those funds.”
While the budget cuts have put the board in the position to make some difficult decisions, Touma said the board did at least have the benefit of time.
"We have so many challenges ahead of us," Touma said. "The beauty of what we have now is that we can afford to be proactive other than to react to issues."
The next Marshall University Board of Governors meeting is set for 11 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, in the Shockey Dining Room at the Memorial Student Center.
Follow Reporter Lacie Pierson on Twitter, @LaciePiersonHD.
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