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UI looks for ways to boost enrollment

Elizabeth Rudd Lewiston Tribune

MOSCOW, Idaho – Enrollment at the University of Idaho is headed in the wrong direction.

Idaho’s flagship university saw its overall student population decline by more than 1,000 between 2004 and 2008. About half of the loss was regained in the following four years, but the slide resumed in 2013 and dropped by 2.9 percent this fall to 11,534.

It’s a pattern that President Chuck Staben wants to reverse.

Staben, who started as UI’s 18th president March 1, has said repeatedly in his short tenure that boosting enrollment, particularly among undergraduates, is his top priority. He says he is working to improve the university’s approach to recruitment and retention.

With that in mind, he has set a 10-year goal of increasing enrollment by 50 percent, with hopes of a 5 percent jump next year.

His approach contrasts with that of former President Duane Nellis, who left in June 2013 to take the helm at Texas Tech University. Nellis vowed to increase enrollment to 16,000 by 2020. Staben said at this point, he’s not even sure UI will hit the 5 percent goal for next year.

It takes years to build enrollment, Staben stressed, and the numbers can be difficult to gauge.

“It really is a tough predictive game,” he said. “Typically, you don’t know until about June or July what your freshman class is going to look like in late August.”

Efforts underway to correct trend

In June, management consultant M.J. Huebner was hired by the university to review and refresh practices related to recruitment and retention.

Huebner, who has consulted with 44 schools, said prospective students and their families have three questions when looking at colleges: can they afford it, is their desired major available, and what will they get out of it. Getting those answers to students and their parents and ultimately gaining a commitment to attend, Huebner said, improves greatly when potential students visit the campus.

That’s the thinking behind changes to UI’s Envision Idaho recruitment event this fall and simpler online registration for campus tours. Staben said it is easier for families to travel to an event held on a Saturday.

Envision Idaho campus tours typically are held on two Fridays in the fall. Last year one was moved to a Saturday. Staben said the switch resulted in almost 600 potential students visiting Moscow with about 400 on the Saturday alone. The event typically garners a total attendance of 340.

“It’s a beautiful campus with a very responsive faculty, and I believe that if we present that effectively to a student, they’ll opt that this is the place for them,” Staben said.

Making the most out of the visit is the next important step, Huebner said. “You have to paint a picture for them of what their life will be like here.”

Huebner has worked to modify UI’s approach to campus tours, including providing online registration, improving the tour and following up with visitors afterward.

Mapping a tour route requires some strategy to highlight the campus and communicate needed information. The tours are designed to show as many of UI’s different programs as possible – degree and extracurricular – and answer common questions for students and their families, like where the financial aid office and student health services are located, as well as the various housing options.

“The more opportunity that we give them to interact with current students, the better experience they’ll have,” Huebner said.

Scholarships, alumni stories also important

Staben said changes have been made to both resident and out-of-state undergraduate scholarship programs to increase financial aid and to simplify requirements. The programs involve four scholarship levels – platinum, gold, silver and bronze – that correlate with a student’s grade-point average. The scholarships are four-year awards as long as the students maintain their GPAs.

“We want students to realize that a quality education at an institution like the University of Idaho is accessible,” Staben said.

Sharing the stories of alumni is another way to provide potential students – and their families – with examples of experiences and opportunities available at UI. Staben said the university has alumni who are passionate about their experiences who can serve as ambassadors. They just need up-to-date information about scholarships and programs.

“They want to do it and we’d like to have them do it,” Staben said.

UI is also trying to figure out ways to keep students in school once they are enrolled. Staben said he’s asking each of the college deans for a retention initiative this year as a start. He also thinks Jean Kim, who started Jan. 2 as vice provost for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management, will bring a new perspective to enrollment management based on her experience overseeing a much larger office at the University of Colorado-Boulder.

Kim said she developed the first strategic plan for enrollment management at the Boulder campus.

The students and their experiences, coupled with employee commitment, are a few reasons Kim said she decided to accept the job in Idaho. She’s excited about working collectively with the campus to achieve Staben’s 50-percent goal, which she notes is lofty but attainable.

“We have a lot more to go, but it’s good that we’ve begun that process,” Kim said.

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