Navigating the Enrollment Cliff: There Are “No Silver Bullets”

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Higher Ed Careers
Friday, August 26, 2022

For years, experts have been projecting an enrollment cliff in higher education. As we begin the new academic year, HigherEdJobs spoke with enrollment experts at Emory & Henry College and Purdue University about their path to achieving record enrollment numbers in the face of this challenge and why enrollment management takes a village.

Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: Please tell us briefly about your current role and the higher ed career path that led you to this position.

Jennifer Pearce, Emory & Henry College: I currently serve as the Vice President for Enrollment Management and External Affairs. I provide leadership and oversight to admissions, financial aid, ROTC program, marketing and communications, public relations, community engagement, our visual and performing arts center, and NPR affiliate radio station. I report to the president and am a member of the cabinet.

I joined the higher ed community at my alma mater in 2005 as its Executive Director of Marketing and Communication after close to two decades in corporate public relations. I learned a great deal during my tenure in the college setting and applied my skill set to Emory & Henry in 2017 to be its first Vice President of Marketing and Communications. In 2020, I assumed additional duties with Enrollment.

Kristina Wong Davis, Purdue University: I currently serve as the Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Purdue University. My portfolio includes Undergraduate Admissions, Financial Aid, the Registrar’s Office, Enrollment Management Analysis and Reporting, and Enrollment Management Strategic Initiatives and Communications. I am very fortunate to have fabulous teams across EM.

My higher education career took many turns. I worked in Cooperative Extension, on GearUp Grants and other college access programs, and finally in admissions. After joining the admissions office at my alma mater, I quickly saw a passion for the work in enrollment management and have stayed in the field since then.

Hibel: Despite the projected enrollment cliff, both Emory & Henry College and Purdue University are reporting record enrollment numbers. How did that issue affect your institution and what measures have been most successful in combatting it?

Pearce: Under the visionary leadership of President John W. Wells and supportive board members, we charged ahead with our strategic planning effort throughout the pandemic. We were making changes and additions to our academic program offerings; investing in a new career center and student success model; and starting the transition from DIII to DII athletics. Having the ability to work tightly with the admissions team and the marketing team, we synergized our tactics to share our story of growth and change with future students in real time. There was a new level of excitement and visibility for the college. We were authentic with our offerings and proud to talk about our place in the beautiful region of Southwest Virginia. We also worked on accountability and expectations within the admission team and implemented a constant review of data to make adjustments where needed.

Wong Davis: Not achieving enrollment goals can be hard, but over-enrolling can be challenging for the entire institution as well. Fortunately, the campus rallied to ensure we met the challenge to deliver the educational experience our students and families expect. We worked to add residency hall space and capacity to our academic spaces. We may not yet be at the ideal place, but we have made great improvements and are attentive to how we continue to ensure that the student experience is what we promise in a Purdue degree.

Hibel: It sounds like Emory & Henry will be investing in a lot of upgrades soon (equestrian center, new housing, an athletic complex). Jennifer, how do these projects fit into your strategic enrollment plan?

Pearce: We’ve had to cap our equestrian enrollment the past two years due to lack of classrooms and boarding availability in our current location. By building a new equine complex just off the interstate near our campus, we will be able to continue to grow the program and increase enrollment. We have more national championships than any other school in the country and incredible faculty and staff. The new multisport athletic complex will offer a track and house soccer and rugby matches. We intend to enroll new students for men’s and women’s lacrosse starting in fall 2023. Due to rising enrollment, housing bed availability is a concern but a good concern to have. More than 90% of students are living on campus this year. Building a 96-bed apartment-style unit will support residence life for upperclassmen. We are contemplating building a second unit assuming we do well with retention efforts and see continued growth. Because we are in a rural area, off-campus housing is not much of an option. Our region is growing with travel and tourism and more retirees relocating to the area creating a bit of a rental shortage.

Hibel: This release about record enrollment at Purdue mentions the establishment of programs to enroll more Black and rural students. Kristina, can you talk about these programs and how they’ve helped diversify your student population and expand access?

Wong Davis: The Board of Trustees launched the Equity Task Force which is very focused on the experience of black students, staff, and faculty at Purdue. As part of that effort, we funded two early outreach counseling positions in Indiana. The focus of these positions is to work with students and families in areas where we would like to draw more students from. The principal goal is to ensure students are prepared to enter a post-secondary experience and thus have that option upon graduation.

Hibel: How have your conversations about enrollment with students and parents changed since the pandemic? What are the obstacles you face with students?

Pearce: During the pandemic, we went test-optional and dropped our essay and letter of recommendation requirements. We’ve learned these can often be a hindrance to completing an application and becoming part of our community early on. We have many first-generation families and students visit and apply, so we go above and beyond to explain the process from start to finish. We’ve upped our FAFSA filing rate from 70% to 95%; extended merit offers early; and made sure to get financial aid packaging out as early as possible. Since COVID, students are either very eager to enter college or some struggle with the mental health aspects of assimilating and leaving the nest they’ve come to love at home. We’ve added two new mental health professionals on campus (for a total of four) and just announced a partnership with a new 24/7 app service to reach professionals when in crisis. It also offers wellness opportunities for mindfulness, nutrition, and exercise to stay healthy.

Wong Davis: I do not know that they have changed greatly, but I feel that more students and families than ever before are anxious to see, feel, and experience the campus. Perhaps the isolation they experienced in the pandemic has increased sensitivity to the physical and personal experiences students desire for their college journey. We do see students continue to tend toward isolation, possibly from experience, but craving interaction and engagement. It’s our desire to deliver that for them.

Hibel: What advice do you have for other schools that might be struggling with enrollment?

Pearce: Find your voice as an institution. The more authentic and real you are, the more the students can see their fit with you. Look at your product. Are the programs relevant for today’s society and future career and graduate school aspirations for the student? In our case, we offer a connected liberal arts base in all we do but understand parents and students are making the investment of a lifetime, and we want to deliver. They deserve excellent outcomes. Enrollment takes a village. Faculty, current students, and coach engagement is critical on a tour for us. We want the family and student to see as broad of a picture as they can when they are with us. Value your staff. They are the root to your success. Keep them engaged on strategic plans and listen to their input to support their roles.

Wong Davis: It’s a competitive environment, and there are no silver bullets. Enrollment is still a process where students and families rely heavily on human interaction. Students and families have to “feel” belonging, engagement, interest, etc. This is exceptionally difficult to quantify as all of my colleagues know. It also takes a campus to achieve this, not just admissions or EM.

Hibel: What is the most rewarding part of your work in higher education and what keeps you engaged working in enrollment?

Pearce: Where would our world be without educated individuals to solve problems, think critically, make change, and see the big picture of how our world operates? It’s a privilege to introduce families and students to Emory & Henry knowing their lives will be changed forever. Continuing to work on access and affordability remains a challenge and conversation we have daily. Any student who wants to learn and better their life outcomes should raise their hand and have an open door to higher education. I estimate since my time in higher education, I’ve watched more than 7,000 students walk across the stage at commencement to step off into the world to make an impact. It’s a privilege and honor to have a hand in their future success.

Wong Davis: I have lived and experienced the impact that post-secondary education can have on your life. It cannot be understated. I’m driven to make sure that we continue to make that experience possible to those students for whom it will make a significant difference in their future.

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