Colleges Set To Vie For Smaller Pie

March 3, 2008
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WEST MICHIGAN — Every year, Michigan public school fourth-graders arrive in Lansing by the bus-full to tour the State Capitol. They tap dance on the rotunda’s glass floor, crane their necks to see the dome’s starry ceiling, and skip past historical portraits of governors.

By the time they’re eligible to apply for college during their senior year in 2015, today’s fourth-graders are expected to be Michigan’s second-smallest class since the 2007-08 school year, now under way. Local colleges are preparing today for the coming demographic shrinkage that’s expected to follow the swell of seniors in 2008.

Jockeying for market share among Michigan universities is likely to intensify as the college-age population declines, said Keith Hearit, Western Michigan University’s interim provost for enrollment services. That’s particularly true for the five with similar enrollments: WMU, Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Grand Valley State University and Oakland University.

“Given the numbers everyone is looking at, competition is only going to get worse,” Hearit said, and would be exacerbated should talk of per-student funding in Lansing become reality.

“I think we’re very conscious of the situation,” GVSU Director of Admissions Jodi Chycinski said. GVSU’s enrollment has blossomed to 23,464 this year.

At Aquinas College, a 2,300-student private Catholic college in Grand Rapids, Vice President for Enrollment Management Paula Meehan said after five years of record numbers of incoming freshmen and transfer students, retaining students is becoming a more formal, data-driven process.

“If a college wants to stave this off, they’re going to have to have vision on programs, they’re going to have to look at facilities, and they’re most definitely going to have to look at retention plans to keep the good students they already have,” Meehan said.  

GVSU has approached ideal enrollment at its Allendale and Grand Rapids campuses, and plans to stick with proven recruitment methods, Chycinski said.

“It doesn’t change anything in terms of the work we’re doing,” she said. “(We) make sure we are very deliberate in our attempts to reach students and that every interaction that we have with students is an incredibly important interaction.”

Chycinski said the focus is not on the declining age cohort as much as it is on boosting the proportion choosing to attend college. She said GVSU reaches as far down as eighth grade to convince students to plan their high school academics with an eye toward college. She pointed to tougher high school graduation requirements, effective with the class of 2011, now freshmen, as well as the inclusion of the ACT as part of standardized testing given during junior year.

“Hopefully, that will prompt students to consider college as an option,” Chycinski said.

Meehan has organized campus committees with an eye toward keeping students coming back. The committees are reviewing academic advising, the “first-year experience,” campus culture and parent outreach. For example, to unite freshmen when they first arrive on campus, the committee has chosen a book for them to read during the summer. When they arrive on campus, the students will find related activities such as book discussions.

“Knowing the population of students was going to start to decline in the states we recruit from, our goal is to have enrollment stability,” said Meehan, whose former role as admissions director was recently expanded to include student retention. “We’re going to increase stability by increasing retention of those students who enroll in our college. They’ll speak with their feet. That’s what retention is all about.”

WMU, with 24,433 enrolled at the start of the school year, has endured several years of sharp enrollment drop-offs. While total enrollment was down by 1.6 percent in fall 2007, the decline is softening, and freshman enrollment at the Kalamazoo campus had increased by 2.7 percent, noted Hearit.

The university is advertising in Michigan, a new strategy that Hearit said is paying off with early estimates of solid freshman enrollments for the 2008 fall term.

“We’re not expecting a huge increase, but we’re going in the other direction,” he said.

Hearit said WMU has introduced new programs to reach out to underserved populations as a tactic for both stemming the recent student drain and to capture a share of students as the market contracts. For example, the university has crafted programs that reach out to veterans and young adults leaving foster care, he said.

WMU is beefing up recruiting efforts in the Chicago area, northern Ohio and northern Indiana. Hearit said to attract Hoosiers, who tend to stay in state for college, WMU offers scholarship funds to make up the difference between financial aid and out-of-state tuition.

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