MURRAY – The enrollment numbers for the 2018 fall semester are not what Murray State University officials want. That is a fact.
Down about 500 students from fall 2017, Murray State has slipped to the 9,400-plus mark for the first time in about 10 years. And with enrollment being the top economic driver of the university, it is no wonder efforts are being doubled, tripled, even quadrupled, to turn this trend around.
To paraphrase “Star Trek,” the university is going to places it has never been before, launching a student recruitment plan that is the first of its kind for any Kentucky college or university.
“That gives us the advantage,” said Vice President of Student Affairs Don Robertson Friday as he updated the Murray State Board of Regents on the plan that the Regents in June charged Robertson and others to put together after watching enrollment slide for the last five years.
This new weapon is called the Yield Communication Plan, which is designed to be more personal in nature, emphasizing addressing prospective students by name, especially after they are admitted as students. This will be administered through an array of mailings, phone texts and video messages via either email or social media.
Many of the electronic messages will be of the “Thank You” variety, a format that Murray State Director of Communication Shawn Touney said has been used for other university endeavors previously,
“It’s usually been for communicating with our alumni for participating on various projects,” Touney said. “The ‘Thank You’ format consists of quick videos that can be sent to X,Y,Z audience. After looking at it closer, we saw that it presents a lot of opportunities for enrollment, to reach prospective students. They’ll actually begin receiving this before their acceptance letter, so I think we’re meeting them where their demands are.”
“Let’s say you’re a student that has been on a campus visit. As you’re driving back home, you get a text message,” Robertson said of the new plan of attack that will also include a video detailing an 18-step process – from admission through enrollment – in which all incoming students need to engage. All of those include URL addresses that tell where information is available for all 18 steps. “The big thing is to continually communicate with these students, but not overly communicates. There’s a fine line with that, and we’re conscious of that.”
However, this is just one part of the overall plan. There is another side that is designed to give university personnel more accurate analysis in determining how many students Murray State can expect to arrive year to year. This has been a major problem as high numbers of high school seniors submitting applications, giving the university reason for optimism, have not translated to strong numbers.
So Robertson and a team that includes numerous departments and offices on campus are refining their methods, to result in much more accurate information. Again, this means venturing into new territory.
“We’ve not had predictive analysis like this (before) and the goal is to be able to predict which students, after they’re admitted, are most likely to enroll based on several characteristics, so we can maximize our efforts,” Robertson said, turning over this segment of the program to Dr. Renee Fister, Murray State’s director of institutional effectiveness and strategic planning. Fister said there is one indicator that seems to connect some of the dots.
“We have a scoring mechanism that we’re using that found that we matriculate 96 to 100 percent of students who are here if they went to Summer O,” Fister said. “So we look at ‘Did they attend Summer O?’ we’ve established a rating system that goes from 0 to 5. Then we look at the matriculation rate and we take those numbers and do a percentage. What we are finding is that, for those students here right now, if they scored 3.5 or higher, then that is approximately 75 percent of our freshman class.”
This exhaustive plan goes further, tracking which students are applying for scholarships, breaking it down to categories of where they live, demographics, as well as applications for housing deposits. Robertson said it is under constant surveillance.
“Every Monday, (Coordinator of Student Services)Jennifer Smith advises me of all of these indicators, the number admitted, in-state, out-of-state, all of these things,” Robertson said. “She works with this formula as far as where we are at this time. For example, we know that we have had more individual students visit than at this time last year (26 percent more, to be exact). Then you can tell that we had two Racer Days (outreach events) this year and two last year and we’ve had 217 more this year than attended the fall before. That’s the kind of information I get every Monday.
“This is providing us with really good baseline data, and each year, we’re going to have this data. We’re in a much better position to predict and concentrate our efforts. It’s an exciting addition to our strategy.”
There are other reasons for optimism, Robertson said. While enrollment is down in this fall, two important statistics are trending upward. Retention for the 2017-18 campus year was at 76.4 percent, two percentage points higher that the previous year.
In fact, that helped the university claim a national award for best practices in student retention. Murray State Interim President Bob Jackson said the fall retention rate is 79.3 percent. That means that, while the students are not coming in droves, the ones who have been there are staying.
“That doesn’t just happen,” Jackson said. “A lot of people worked very, very hard on that.”
The 2018 graduation rate supplied further evidence that the university is thriving in areas. That was 55 percent, compared to 48.6 in 2016-17.
Still, only stronger results going forward will put smiles on the faces of Robertson, his team and the regents. After all, the university is budgeting for a shortfall of $4.5 million for the next fiscal year and would love to see a significant increase in its enrollment fortunes sooner rather than later.
“When we asked for a comprehensive strategic plan, it was because we needed something that was organized, that people could get behind,” said Regent Chair Susan Guess, who peppered Robertson and others with strong questions when they appeared in front of the board in October. “This is what I envisioned. It certainly does provide more of a road map that we were looking for. I think it’s measurable and meaningful and I think it will make a difference.”
“Chair Guess, you asked for a comprehensive plan and (Robertson and his team) certainly cane through,” said Regents Vice Chair Lisa Rudolph, who is also heading the Regents’ Enrollment Management and Student Success Committee.