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DDN: Wright State looks to other schools for ways to lure more students

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Excerpt from the Dayton Daily News

Wright State University’s total enrollment is projected to dip below 17,000 students this fall for the first time since 2007, prompting WSU leaders to look at other Ohio colleges for solutions.

The number of students enrolled at Wright State is projected to be around 16,224 this fall, nearly 3,550 below the school’s peak in 2010 when a transition from quarters to semesters started taking place, according to a fiscal year 2019 budget presentation. Tuition is often the largest single source of revenue for colleges, meaning declines in enrollment translate to less funding.

Wright State’s decline is part of a national trend, president Cheryl Schrader and others have argued.

Wright State swallowed a 13 percent decrease in full-time enrollment from FY 2012 to FY 2017, and several other public colleges in Ohio experienced similar or worse declines. In the same period, the University of Toledo saw a 10 percent decline, Youngstown State University had a 12 percent decline and the University of Akron had a 22 percent decrease, according to the Ohio Department of Higher Education.

But, not every college has seen such drops in recent years.

Both Miami University and Ohio State University have experienced modest increases, and along with the University of Dayton, they all recently welcomed a few record-breaking freshmen classes. In 2017, UD had its largest freshman class in history, and this fall the freshmen classes at Miami and Ohio State are expected to increase by a few hundred each.

Their success has prompted Wright State trustees to call for Schrader and her team to take some drastic measures to compete.

“Let’s try to be disruptive with it. How can we shock the other universities that we compete with?” Wright State trustee Bruce Langos said earlier this month.

Word of mouth is one of the best recruitment tools colleges have, said Keith Gehres, director of outreach and recruitment at Ohio State. If an OSU student goes home for summer and winter break and shares positive reviews of campus life, that in turn could spark interest from a potential student, he said.

When Ohio State hosts recruitment events in Dayton, the hosts will often ask an OSU student from the Dayton area to speak about their experience. Generating that “personal connection” to a student from the area is key, Gehres said.

“It’s huge,” he said. “Having a current student say something means so much more because they’re living that experience.”

Having recruiters go out into communities is a commonly used tactic that has worked well for both OSU and Miami. Each school places recruiters in communities throughout Ohio and the country plus in areas deemed “emerging markets.”

The topic of recruiters has come up several times at Wright State, and school leaders have even discussed having full-time staff set up shop at Sinclair Community College and other two-year schools.

“If you’re not out there telling your story to students, then someone else will be,” said Susan Schaurer, Miami’s assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions.

Enrollment has been a frequent discussion at Wright State since a boost in students would mean fewer budget cuts in the future. Wright State trustees slashed $30.8 million from the school’s FY 2018 budget last year, and just weeks ago they approved a FY 2019 budget that projects a $10 million drop in revenue, mainly because of enrollment.

Wright State has already implemented a number of measures to try to reverse its enrollment declines and more changes are coming, Schrader has said.

Keeping and attracting international students has been particularly difficult for WSU in recent years as foreign enrollment declined by around 779 since 2015. The school is trying to compete more in the international landscape by targeting more countries with specified scholarships and partnerships.

Marketing to potential students has also become more of a focus, and Wright State has hired the firm Ruffalo Noel and Levitz to develop ways to boost enrollment. The company “partners with colleges and nonprofit organizations to help them enroll their classes, graduate their students, and engage their donors,” according to its website.

Langos criticized Schrader for hiring the firm, but it’s actually common practice for schools to hire outside consultants for enrollment management, both Schaurer and Gehres said. Consultants can provide outside opinions and do research to validate what a school suspects is working or not working in enrollment, Schaurer said.

“You’ll see many institutions connecting with outside consultants or companies,” Gehres said. “Ohio State certainly has done the same.”