SUU In View (Alumni Magazine - Fall 2002)
To Grow or Not to Grow, That is NOT a Question
Bigger may not always be better, but in the case of SUU's student body, it definitely is.
"Growing the size of our student population is the only real way SUU can expect any funding to enhance our students' educational opportunities," says Dean O'Driscoll ('83 Communication & Physical Education), who was recently asked to chair the new SUU Enrollment Management Committee, a combination of the three former marketing, recruitment and retention committees.
"Even before these tough economic times, the only money allocated to the University above the base operating budget was determined by the number of students we had grown since the last fall semester. The growth money is where you find resources to offer additional classes, hire more faculty and provide better services for the students, so we, as an institution, need to grow."
SUU's student population hovers around 6,500 now; the goal is to reach 9,000 students by the year 2011. To reach that goal, SUU needs to grow by about 275 students each year--a very aggressive and optimistic goal to maintain, O'Driscoll admits. Still, the average growth rate in recent years has been about 298 new students each year (with the exception of two years). "We have some real challenges to overcome in order to reach that goal and no one here is operating under the false impression that it is going to be easy."
O'Driscoll continues to explain that right now, there are two particular factors that are directly impacting SUU's success in meeting this goal-that is, the evolvement of the competition, and the tobacco-money scholarships in Nevada. Events like Ricks College becoming BYU Idaho, Dixie College offering four-year programs, and the explosive growth of Utah Valley State College certainly affect SUU's intended growth. The unexpected and whopping influx of money from tobacco settlements into the scholarship reserve of Nevada higher education has undoubtedly influenced previously-prospective SUU students to stay in their homestate.
All of these factors are uncontrollable ones, so, O'Driscoll submits, the Enrollment Management Committee will focus on those that can be swayed. "Numerous factors are involved in influencing a student's decision to come to SUU, and encouraging them to stay on as a Thunderbird," he says. "The issues we need to take a look at include leveraging financial aid packages, increasing the yield percentage for transfer students, improving the retention rate of all students, and increasing the number of students involved in concurrent and continuing education."
The first place to start, he indicates, is to increase the size of the inquiry pool. "It's obvious, yet anything but simple; we need more young people to know about the great opportunity available on this beautiful campus in Cedar City, Utah."
This, incidentally, is one task that alumni and friends of the University can help accomplish. "Everyone who has good things to say about SUU needs to start telling their neighbors, friends and co-workers," O'Driscoll, also the director of marketing and public relations, proclaims. "Word of mouth advertising is by far the most effective, and former students are the best mediums for delivering our message."
Some numbers that we do know, however, O'Driscoll explains, include the national average for prospective students actually enrolling in class after being accepted for admission--that is, 45 percent. "SUU is yielding an incredible 59 percent, a number so good that professional enrollment consultants aren't sure the University can improve upon it. So, in order to yield more students, more people need to know about SUU."
To attract and maintain more students will take additional resources and the administration has taken steps to find some limited funds in very difficult times. "Our competitors are just offering more and bigger scholarships," Dale Orton ('99 M.Education), the new assistant vice president of student services, says. Orton is hoping that some of the money saved in the recent administrative shuffling will go toward badly-needed financial aid packages necessary to attract more students.
"With our tuition hikes, even the same money isn't going as far as it did just a couple of years ago." Orton cites the declining interest rates on investments as a contributing reason for decreased endowment income. "We know we can't, and don't try to buy students, but we need to be able to offer them some help with all of the expenses." The flipside, however, is that SUU offers a superior University education for the least amount of money in the state, and obviously, this is one of the Institution's attractive selling points.
Also, the largest single portion of money reallocated in the recent modification of SUU's budget has gone toward hourly wages to help employ students at SUU. "We know that the opportunity to work is a key factor in retaining students and that is something we are concentrating on as one of the University's strategic goals," O'Driscoll states.
Solid data. That's what O'Driscoll says the Enrollment Management Committee needs is obtaining. "We need to know what the students are thinking; why they chose us; why they didn't; why they are leaving before graduation; if leaving was a later decision or their goal in the beginning; how much financial aid is required to help them stay in school without over-awarding; how many of their decisions are based on getting jobs, or the resources for recreation and entertainment in Cedar City; and much more. We will be carefully studying the research we already have and obtaining more to get the answers we need."
Noel-Levitz, a firm specializing in higher education marketing and enrollment management, has been retained for consultation by the University and may be hired along the way for specific projects or expertise not available on campus. In its initial report, Noel-Levitz complimented a number of personnel on campus for their outstanding work already executed. The consultants were amazed at just how many hats some people are wearing and how much has been accomplished with very modest resources. Many of the recommendations by the firm require the establishment of a state-of-the-art enrollment management system. Another one of the major shift of money in SUU's budget reallocation process will take advantage of a rare opportunity the Utah System of Higher Eduation has been offered. A new Administrative Data Processing (ADP) software has become available at a bargain basement price. SUU has been running on a package that is nearly 20-years-old or older. Special portions of this software package are designed specifically to help with admissions, recruiting, fundraising, records, alumni relations, registration, financial aid, human resources, and more-in other words, Enrollment Management.
The first goal of the Committee will be to find the solutions that have low costs and promise significant dividends. Orton concurs, emphasizing that "We can't try to do everything that we know would help us. We have to carefully choose a handful of solid options and concentrate on doing those very well."
Overwhelming it may seem, but as suggested earlier-to grow, or not to grow, is not a question. President Steven Bennion has made Enrollment Management a very high priority. He observes, "This is a critical component of moving this University in the right direction. The single best way we can improve our service to students is to expand our student body while carefully managing and planning for the opportunities the associated dollars will bring."
In order to achieve success, the objectives of Enrollment Management, like so many University programs, necessitates teamwork and a respect for the interdependence that exists between all departments on campus. "There are so many elements that enter into this objective that it's a little overwhelming to think about how and where to start," O'Driscoll admits. "For example, most people probably wouldn't think of this, but our plant operations staff is a critical member of the team. A large percentage of students and parents look at the beauty and safety of a campus when deciding where a good place to spend the next couple of years might be."
Additionally, quantity and availability of scholarships is a foremost consideration in a student's decision-making process, as well as a major component of the University's Capital Campaign. "If we don't secure additional funding for the students, we will struggle to reach enrollment goals," O'Driscoll declares. "Everything overlaps. All of our efforts affect each other."
Bottom line, though? O'Driscoll concludes, "We need to make sure we are offering students an inspirational learning environment, world-class service, and as few roadblocks as possible to completing their educational goals. And," he emphasizes, "we need to ensure that personal attention will continue to be a hallmark of an SUU education."
Indeed, it's a very competitive market with difficult economic conditions in which to pursue expansion and growth, but that is exactly what SUU is planning to do, and the help of alumni and friends is not only needed, but greatly appreciated.