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MU explores ways to up enrollment

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 12:15 AM

HUNTINGTON— Enrollment is presenting some new challenges for Marshall University and many colleges across the country.

After decades of more and more students going to college, overall national enrollment is down slightly for the second year in a row, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, and the numbers are down at Marshall, too.

From the perspective of Beth Wolfe, Marshall’s director of recruitment, the challenges are mounting in trying to entice students to the school even as those students face a greater tuition burden and higher education institutions in West Virginia and throughout the country operate with less and less public funding.

The efforts of Wolfe and her five recruiters were the topic of a more than one-hour long question and answer session during Marshall’s Board of Governor’s meeting in October, as board members looked for answers.

“There are some serious concerns because the health of this university, the viability, the financial viability of this university depends on your team and all of us,” Board President Dr. Joseph Touma said at the meeting.

Marshall is facing a projected 2 percent decrease in enrollment for this school year, said Wolfe. Enrollment at the school has declined for the previous two years  —  1.6 percent in 2011 and 1.8 percent in 2012. Data on the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission’s website indicated enrollment fell a little more than 3 percent at colleges statewide from 2011 to 2012.

If Marshall’s enrollment rate does decrease by 2 percent, it will be slightly higher than the national enrollment rate, which decreased by 1.5 percent between fall 2012 and fall 2013, according to a report the National Student Clearinghouse.

Marshall’s final fall enrollment numbers won’t be determined until the end of the month, but, as of Oct. 15, 2013, Marshall’s head count showed a total enrollment rate of 13,056 students. That number includes everyone from first-time freshman through graduate students.

At that same point in 2012, the school had an enrollment rate of 13,279 students, indicating that the school already had encountered a 1.7 percent decline in enrollment between the fall semesters of 2012 and 2013.

High school changes

In questioning Wolfe in October, board member and former state Sen. Oshel Craigo said he was concerned about recruiting at high schools and how Wolfe and her five-person staff maintained relationships with area high schools, citing it as a key recruiting dynamic.

During the meeting, university President Stephen Kopp said he understood Craigo’s concerns, but he said the functionality of schools has changed in a way that has affected how recruiters do their jobs. Kopp said the increase in school safety and the emphasis on instructional time have meant a shift in school accessibility, a point that Wolfe reiterated during an interview earlier this month.

Recruiters are up against a national trend in which mid-sized regional institutions, like Marshall have been hardest hit by the enrollment slump, Wolfe said.

“It’s much more competitive nationally, especially for us,” Wolfe said. “For example, Harvard is never going to have an enrollment issue. Schools that have big name recognition for whatever reason can usually bank on doing well with that.”

There also is a decline in the high school student population, Wolfe said, which means she and university administrators have to get creative in their recruitment strategies.

“Enrollment is so many more pieces than just that incoming freshman class,” Wolfe said. “If you’re looking to maintain your enrollment, you have to look at things like, ‘Can we recruit people who maybe attended college for a while but quit before graduating? Can we get them to come back and finish their degree? Can we recruit students out of community college and take their two-year degree to a four-year degree?’”

New strategies

Marshall recently entered into a 2+2 Articulation Agreement with Mountwest Community and Technical College that  will allow journalism majors who have successfully earned associate degrees from MCTC to seamlessly transfer those credits to Marshall in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree. Similar agreements with other programs between the schools are in the works, Wolfe said.

A new program that already appears to be having an effect on new enrollment is the INTO University Partnership, which integrates international students into the American university culture, said Matt Turner, Marshall’s chief of staff.

He said there is an increasing demand from international students to attend college in the United States, and the program, which was introduced in early October, has been the enrollment catalyst for more than 200 international students at Marshall.

Turner also said an increasing emphasis on degree programs, namely the School of Pharmacy and the engineering and physical therapy programs, helps graduates to meet the demands of the current job market.

“The long and short of it is we have to offer high demand programs,” Turner said. “We have to look at the career fields that are hiring and how that merges with the mission of the state and the university and what we can do to help our students meet the demands of those fields.”

Equally as important as recruiting students to the university is keeping them there, Wolfe said.

Programs like the Student Success Collaborative, which provides a road map for students to plan their trips through college through predictive analysis. The program helps advisers guide students, who are undecided about their majors, toward courses that are most likely to interest them and lead to a permanent major, Wolfe said.

Another program to retain students is the Degree Works program, which is accessible through students’ MUOnline accounts. Students can see how they are progressing toward the completion of their degree, and it helps them explore their options if they are considering changing their majors, Wolfe said.

The ability for students to plan ahead is beneficial in helping them complete their degrees, Turner said, but the most critical challenge facing the majority of college students today is the cost to earn those degrees.

Tuition increases

For this semester, in-state students experienced an increase of $140 per semester, bringing the total cost of tuition to more than $2,300 per semester for those students.

Wolfe also said a little more than 80 percent of Marshall’s student population uses some form of financial aid in the form of student loans or scholarships.

Public colleges and universities in West Virginia received a 7.5 percent budget cut during the 2013 legislative session. That cut went into effect for the current fiscal year, and administrators are bracing for a similar cut, which would go into effect for the next fiscal year, that is proposed for the next legislative session.

“Legislators see higher education as more flexible because we can raise tuition rates,” Turner said. “When we have to do that, we’re pricing ourselves out of the means of those who need it the most -- those students who are perfectly capable and qualified, who can’t afford it.”

Wolfe said it is up to her and her staff to not only make sure potential students understand their options when it comes to financial aid, but she said it is up to recruiters to be sure they continue to explore every option available to them to face the challenges ahead of them.

 “For me, personally, I’m never satisfied with what we do,” Wolfe said. “Every day there is something I think of, and I think, ‘I wish we could do that,’ whether it’s the time involved or the other resources we need. We’ll do what we can to help students see if Marshall is the right fit for them.”

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