Murray State Summer O

The leadership team for Murray State University’s Summer Orientation program was in a mood to celebrate last week as the 2021 sessions began. University officials said that they had far fewer no-shows than in past years.

MURRAY — At the beginning of his opening remarks during Friday’s meeting of the Murray State University Board of Regents, President Dr. Bob Jackson uttered a phrase that seems to have defined the campus the past few years.

“We’re all recruiters, this board, our faculty, our staff, administrators and especially our students,” Jackson said, noting how the executive budget for Fiscal Year 2022 that the Regents approved later that day is 71% reliant on enrollment. 

That explains why the university has been in attack mode, first, after Jackson was named interim president in August 2018, then permanent president in March 2019. 

Each Regents meeting now includes a comprehensive enrollment report that is usually led by Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Don Robertson, but, more and more, the spotlight has been falling on university Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Strategic Planning: Institutional Effectiveness Dr. Renee Fister, who has presented elaborate graphics and dashboard indicators to follow the progress. She was it again Friday.

“Numbers are always great, right?” Fister asked before launching into a report that was quite fresh. “I was working on these numbers at zero dark 30 this morning, so these are up to date.”

What they showed was the university is continuing its upward trend of the past few years. 

This year’s summer enrollment is up 6% overall, compared to 2020. However, after the last meeting in March, Regents asked Fister if it would be possible to expand her numbers to also include 2019, which was the last academic year before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, sending every student home by March of the 2020 spring semester. 

She obliged.

“This is fabulous,” she said before comparing this year to ’19. “We are 16% over 2019. OK, those are great totals. But we’re also 4% for graduate students over 2020 and we’re almost 15% over 2019.”

Then, she acknowledged the obvious.

“OK, what are we all interested in? It’s what we’re doing for fall, right?” she said before her graphs on the large projection board inside the Hall of Benefactors at Heritage Hall showed reasons for optimism among the Regents. 

“Let’s go back to head count. We are 4% over 2019, but we’re also 4% over 2020,” Fister said. “And these are registered students. They have a schedule. These are not just admissions.”

Fister also said there are 7% more Kentucky students who are registered for the fall, as compared to last year. But perhaps the most key piece of the puzzle was found when it came to first-time freshmen who reside in the 18 westernmost counties of the commonwealth, long known as the university’s regional service area.

Murray State is up 4% from 2019 and 8% from 2020. All of this was enough to make incoming Regents Chair Eric Crigler want to make extra sure that these numbers were accurate.

“So you’re comparing registered students versus ’20 and ’19? This is not, like, a forecast?” Crigler asked as Fister acknowledged that, not only were these numbers accurate, they were as up-to-date as possible.

However, there was more positive news in another area. Last week marked the opening of the university’s Summer Orientation season and there was a big difference between 2020 and this year — on-campus visits were back.

University Admissions Director Shawn Smee said the first sessions last Thursday, June 3, revealed a very reassuring trend. In fact, it is one he said he does not remember happening in his time at Murray State.

“We have never had a session where only one family hasn’t shown up. I mean, you’re talking 10 ... 12 … 15 families who won’t show up,” Smee said, his comments causing a distinctive buzz to reverberate around the room. What he said next added to the intensity of that buzz.

“Then (last Thursday), a tired dad shows up at the registration table and he’s from Connecticut. It turns out that the horse trainer for his child is a graduate of Murray State and said this is where they needed to be. So they drove 20 hours through the night to orientation, then they were going to drive back. 

“We feel our students are more committed. We’re excited to see those families and students (after being all-virtual last year) on campus and we know they’re excited to be here. And the people we have talked to say the reason they’re here is because we’re open and are having those in-person sessions and they were just gracious for the campus being able to have open sessions.”

Smee said Day 1 resulted in 160 on-campus Summer O participants, with 142 joining the festivities by virtual communication means. 

Robertson said all of these results can be attributed to one thing.

“As President Jackson said, we are all recruiters,” Robertson said. “I want to thank all of the university officials who have been involved with enrollment efforts, because that’s also about, not only recruitment, but retention (where Murray State has performed very strong in the past). It is across the campus. They understand the importance of 71% of the budget being involved with enrollment. I’m almost tempted to call them the 71% Club because they do understand how critical enrollment is and they have worked extremely hard, particularly in the last few years, but especially this past year amid some very challenging times of the pandemic.

“They have just been grinding away every day to recruit every possible student to come to Murray State. I can ensure you we are following up with all of these students. We are talking every Monday, Tuesday,Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and, sometimes weekends.”