Focus and Education

Declining demographic, better economy impact enrollment

To compete, West Michigan colleges and universities are increasing their recruitment efforts.

August 22, 2014
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GVSU's Allendale campus. Courtesy GVSU

Students are beginning to take their seats as college classes kick off for the fall semester, but enrollment may face challenges in the future.

As colleges and universities open their doors for another school year, they are playing to their strengths to attract candidates as the number of graduating high school seniors declines throughout the region and the growth of the economy means fewer workers are seeking to improve their work skills by going back to school.

Lynn Blue, vice provost and dean of academic services and information technology at Grand Valley State University, said it would be difficult for public four-year universities in Michigan to anticipate a high level of growth in enrollment due to smaller high school graduating classes, but classifies the upcoming year at GVSU as stable.

“As the number of students graduating high school gets fewer and fewer every year, either you have to entice students who otherwise wouldn’t have gone to college to go to college, or one school loses a lot of people where another gains market share,” said Blue. “It is very competitive because the privates would all like to have good enrollment, the two-years would, and the four-year publics would.”

The National Center for Education Statistics released the report “Projections of Education Statistics to 2021” in January 2013, which noted the number of high school graduates in the Midwest is expected to decrease 4 percent between the 2008-2009 and 2021-2022 academic years.

Another forecast by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education was released in December 2012 noting Michigan is looking at a substantial contraction of high school graduates, which began in 2009-2010. “Knocking at the College Door: Projections of High School Graduates” reported the number of high school graduates is expected to decline by 20 percent in Michigan by 2019-2020.

“We all want to fill our seats, and there aren’t a lot of levers. You either steal market share or you, as a state, try to get a bigger percentage of graduates going to college than in the past,” said Blue. “Certainly, many of the schools are recruiting outside of the state.”

Tom Mikowski, associate vice president of admissions at Aquinas College, said with the anticipation of a slight decrease of enrollment at the undergraduate level and the demographic of high school graduates declining in the state of Michigan, Aquinas is looking to attract international students.

“That is certainly an area that we have been working on, and this year we have students coming in from all over the world,” said Mikowski. “That has really been an emphasis of ours as the demographics go down in the state of Michigan: to look at those international and/or out of state markets to attract those students.”

Another indicator impacting enrollment numbers involves the economic recovery and declining unemployment numbers in the region.

Tina Hoxie, dean of student affairs at Grand Rapids Community College, noting that Kent County’s unemployment rate is lower than the state average, said declining enrollment also can be blamed on the improving economy.

“We are experiencing a downward trend just like most of the community colleges across the state with the recovery of the economy as well as the job growth and the economic growth in the area,” said Hoxie. “When you see growth in the economy, individuals in our community are then looking at staying at a job they have right now and also are able to find employment more easily. When the economy is in a downward trend, more individuals look at how they might advance their skills and their career by looking at educational investment.”

To overcome the challenge of a smaller pool of graduating high school students and a decline of workers investing in skill advancement, academic institutions are taking recruitment seriously and working to be proactive in attracting students.

With more than 100 years of commitment to providing educational opportunities to those in West Michigan, Hoxie said GRCC works with employers to develop programs to meet current job demands and encourages high school students to pursue a degree that can make a difference in their future.

“It is about serving our community, so we look for new students to come from, certainly, our high school population here in our area, as well as individuals that maybe have never decided that education was their path,” said Hoxie. “We also work very closely with our business and industry here in our community by providing a variety of workforce development programs.”

Part of the recruitment effort at GVSU is to stay true to its mission and actively seek out students who match well with the programs and environment at the campus, according to Blue.

“We try to give people an accurate reflection of who we are and what we do. We want to make sure what students see on a campus view is what it feels like when they are actually here,” said Blue. “The most important facet of recruitment is strong retention. It gets back to some of the business models: Your customers are your best recruiters because they go out and say all the right things.”

Mikowski said part of Aquinas College’s method of attracting out-of-state students is through recruitment by counselors traveling throughout the Midwest region and even internationally.

“We have admissions counselors who travel throughout the Midwest, going to high schools, going to college nights,” said Mikowski. “We do a lot of face-to-face recruitment out there. We also do an international recruitment initiative for the past couple of years, so we have counselors who will travel up to Canada, we have a counselor in Puerto Rico right now, and we’ve spent some time laying some groundwork in South America.”

William Vanderbilt, vice president for admissions at Hope College, said the most successful method to attract students is by telling Hope’s story — and the best people to tell that story are existing Hope students.

“We have found that for students to connect with our current students and really understand what the environment is like at Hope — that is the best thing we can do, which really, we think, speaks volumes,” said Vanderbilt. “For us, it is an investment students and families are making, and we really encourage them to get to know Hope really well during the recruiting process.”

Earlier this summer, Hope College announced the expectation for enrollment during the upcoming academic year would reach a record number for the fourth consecutive year.

“We are excited to have a great group of students joining us here at Hope and certainly feel blessed and don’t take for granted that students and families can and will decide to make Hope happen,” said Vanderbilt.

“What we just have to be careful of is to balance any enrollment increases with our ability to meet those and exceed those expectations that students and families have of students coming in, and being able to really engage with faculty and staff.”

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