MURRAY — Though it will not be known until the first students start arriving for classes in August, it appears the first signs of a turn for the better in Murray State University’s enrollment numbers are evident.
Summer Orientation and housing numbers for the fall 2019 semester are both dramatically up compared to the same period last year, giving university officials optimism that things are indeed improving. Certainly such forecasts are encouraging, considering how much effort has gone into strategies and programs designed with the intent of ending a five-year decline in enrollment.
Perhaps hidden in this effort has been the work of Murray State’s Office of Marketing and Branding, which has been working with the Florida-based Stamats Data Management firm the past several months developing new ideas and strategies to further enhance this effort. It probably should come as no surprise that the results of a lengthy marketing audit Stamats has conducted was one of the lead items of Friday’s Murray State Board of Regents meeting.
Murray State Director of Communications Shawn Touney gave that report alongside Greg Carroll, a senior associate with Stamats who has more than 40 years of experience in higher education marketing.
“Finding recruitment and marketing enhancements that were sustainable, that was what we were charged to do,” Touney said, noting that there were very few stones unturned, recruitment, retention, assessment academic programs, among them.
What Stamats found, Carroll said, is that Murray State has been lacking in publicly telling the stories of students who have found success as post-graduates. This was learned after looking at websites and marketing strategies of colleges and universities nearby.
“One of the things I want to make sure you understand about this is that we’ve looked at your competition very carefully,” Carroll said, noting that it is with Murray State’s web page that some improvements are necessary. It found that there are more than 3,000 available pages, and the information most needed for prospective students and their families is not readily available.
“One of the reasons we zeroed in on the website is because we run two interesting studies: teen talk, which is a comprehensive survey of what students are looking for, and parents talk, where they’re wanting to see how an institution can help their son or daughter. We found that everything goes back to the website, and if it doesn’t work fast and doesn’t work well, they don’t stick around to look for what they need.
“They move on to the next four or five institutions. You’ll lose them before you even have the chance to talk to them.”
One thing Touney said the marketing strategy will emphasize is a new simplified tuition structure the Regents approved Friday. Before, rates were quite varied from state to state (depending on where the student lives), but those were simplified Friday. The plan is for most out-of-state tuition to be the same rate by fall 2021 for states like Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama and Indiana.
“That will be so crucial now, to have that on our website in a more simplified manner,” he said.
However, promotion of the university was not the only thing Stamats examined. It also looked into the programs Murray State offers, or does not offer, and developed a strategy to make some programs a little more visible, and perhaps to have some brought into the mix.
These include cybersecurity, social work, statistics, engineering fields, actuary sciences, hydrology/water science, public health, psychology concentrations and organizational leadership.
“We looked at it nationally and we saw a lot of striking parallels. What we found is that these are where students are looking to major in,” Carroll said. “What we did is look at what you have, and we didn’t see one (included at Murray State); that’s how it got folded into that list.
“What’s nice is you already were moving toward some of these anyway, and what we found is that public health and cybersecurity are the two most popular nationally and regionally, and these are the ones that really resonate with students and parents.”
“It’s not as easy as just flipping a switch on and off when it comes to bringing in a program,” said Murray State Provost Dr. Mark Arant, adding his thoughts to the conversation. “When you’re looking at curriculum changes, it’s an ever-flowing and changing map, but we think we are uniquely positioned to take advantage of some of these.”
One final piece to the presentation Friday involved a re-branding for Murray State, which Stamats is also assisting in developing. Ideas are starting to be slowly offered to the university community, and last Monday, faculty, staff, students and alumni were invited to view some ideas and give their opinion during an activity at the Curris Center.
One thing is obvious, though. In some form or fashion, the word “Racers” will be included.
“I think a lot of people were afraid that we were going to throw something out there, say, ‘Call us if you have questions,’ and be done with it. No. This is a process. This is also the university’s brand. It’s not the Office of Marketing and Branding that’s the only one doing this,” Touney said, emphasizing a word outgoing Regents Chair Susan Guess strongly emphasized throughout her final meeting Friday. “It’s about collaboration and this has been a collaborative process. We have worked with (Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Don Robertson and his office) several times. We have also involved the Office of Enrollment Management to solicit their thoughts. We’ve had multiple focus groups and the whole thing revolves around one question: ‘What does it mean to be a Racer?’
“Stamats has also challenged us to find a brand that’s bold, aspirational, unique and rooted in the idea of recruitment. Obviously we have seen ‘Racers’ used all over this campus, and it’s about the idea of Racers being involved in movement, purposeful movement, the chance to get ahead and make a difference. It’s a word that is near and dear to us, and that’s the centering idea we’re working on right now.”
Carroll said this is something that could be well-timed as Murray State heads toward its centennial celebration in 2022.