Office of the President

The Top 20 Questions of Fall 2014

Posted by: Thomas Krise Date: November 10, 2014 In: , ,

Recently, at PLU’s Fall 2014 Conference, I invited faculty members, staff and administrators to share questions – any questions – they had about the strategic direction of the university. I received 131 questions, many of which fell into similar categories. I’ve decided to address the top 20 most frequently asked questions here, over the next several weeks. Here are the first six, you can click each question for an answer. I look forward to reading and hearing your comments and additional questions.

What are the top three reasons that only 50% of students graduate in four years and what can be done to address the reasons that students don’t persist?

A: In Spring 2013, PLU had a 52% four-year graduation rate; by Spring 2014, that rate had increased to 57%, but we should be aiming for 65% or better to be in the company of other universities of the first rank. The Admission and Retention of Students (ARTS) Committee has been hard at work analyzing the issues of student persistence and retention, and they’re developing strategies to inform how we look at incoming academic profile and how we can improve our graduation rates. Simply put, the top three reasons that students don’t persist at PLU include academic challenges, the “fit” or sense of belonging that students feel particularly in their first year, and adequate financial aid literacy and planning.

You will be hearing much more about remedies for these challenges in the coming months, but in summary, the ARTS committee is exploring several strategies for those students facing academic challenges, including early identification, monitoring and intervention of at-risk students, especially those who plan to work, students of color, international and transfer students, and military-affiliated populations. The ARTS Committee is looking at best practices in peer institutions including creating learning communities among incoming cohorts through the First Year Experience Program and general education courses; academic coaching that involves a more direct advising model with academic “personal trainers” and “completion coaches” for students with extraordinary circumstances; and additional support programs like Summer Academy and other mandatory success groups and courses.

As for increasing our students’ sense of belonging, we are looking at residency requirements and exploring ways to get more students to live on campus, especially since we know that students who live on campus in their first two years tend to be more engaged, retain better, and have better academic outcomes. We are also looking at ways to cement early and lasting connections with advisors and faculty members, and establishing an “academic home” early on within the disciplines. For transfer students, we are evaluating ways to welcome them into established cohorts.

Our Academic Advising team, in partnership with the ARTS Committee, is evaluating customized plans that gives current and prospective students a concrete and coherent roadmap, that includes more regular checkpoints with advisers, considerations for scheduling flexibility (especially during Summer and January Term) and vocational exploration. Finally, the ARTS Committee is looking at devising a financial dashboard for students so that they know where they stand with regard to financial aid eligibility and progress toward degree and emphasizing more regular financial counseling and checkups with Student Services.

How is the 15% return on investment for a college degree that you cited measured?

A: In “Do the Benefits of College Still Outweigh the Costs?” economists Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz examine the economic costs, benefits, and return to an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. The authors show that even with increased tuition and reduced wages, the return to both degrees has held at about 15 percent for more than a decade. The return has remained high because the wages of those without a college degree have also been falling, keeping the college wage premium near an all-time high while lowering the opportunity cost of going to school. You can read the full report here and examine their methodology.

What is the plan for an Advancement campaign to increase the endowment yield by $20 million by 2020? Silent phase? Timeline? Public launch?

A: At present, the plan is to take on the goal incrementally, year over year, by adding about $6 million annually to the endowment. This would increase the endowment by about $40 million and yield an additional $2 million in annual revenue, not $20 million. A campaign style approach may be more realistic once we have some better analysis of our current and prospective donor pool; this analysis is in the works now by the Advancement team. A second consideration is the Rieke Science Center. We’re currently at work on plans for an expanded, interdisciplinary learning space. We could decide to put the two pieces together and launch a new campaign for PLU with a target of about $80-100 million. All of this is under study now, and I hope to share more details in the coming months.

How will we determine the return on investment for the newly created marketing initiatives?

A: All recruitment materials and campaigns are measured against increases in student inquiries, visits and applications. Although it’s still early days, I’m encouraged by the first Fall ’15 enrollment data. As of November 3, first-time undergraduate inquires have increased 53%, applications are up 27%, admits are up 90%, and deposits have increased 75% over the year-ago period. For transfer students, inquiries are up a whopping 257%, while applications are up nearly 10% and deposits are up 250%. And our admitted students of color have increased 186% (20 vs. 7 a year ago), while applications from students of color are up 15% (101 vs. 88). Also encouraging is the fact that average GPA is holding steady and composite SAT scores have gone up with this first wave of 2015 student inquiries. While many factors have supported this increase—most especially an energized, expert, and very active recruiting staff—I believe our 100+ billboards and “wrapped” SeaTac light rail train and improved recruiting materials have contributed a lot, too.

As for ROI measures on Advancement campaigns, we measure email open rate, click through and fundraising goal attainment. General visibility campaigns are measured against the number of shares and engagement in social media channels and qualitative measures among key constituencies. Another example of how our MarCom team is creatively driving multi-channel marketing campaigns is the outpouring of positive engagement on our public service “My Language, My Choice” billboard campaign. Students who are featured in the campaign posted photos of their billboards on our Tumblr page, and in a matter of days, we had more than 48,000 reblogs and comments from people across the country, all overwhelmingly positive.

With the new interactive version of Resolute Magazine, we measure increases in unique users, page views, average session duration, percentage of returning visitors and bounce rate. And our public relations and external media relations efforts are measured in quantity and geographic reach of PLU stories and tone of coverage. But probably the best measure of all, is the number of positive comments I keep hearing from campus colleagues, and from alumni and friends, who are pleased to be seeing, and hearing about, PLU as never before.

How can we create a culture of philanthropy on campus?

A: PLU’s Advancement team is hard at work on strategies to build a culture of giving, and one of the most important things we can do is to teach students to appreciate the gifts that alumni are giving today to make their college experience better. It’s like that famous quotation from President John F. Kennedy: “To those whom much is given, much is expected.” We know that the vast majority of our students require scholarships and other forms of financial aid to attend PLU. We also know that the issue of graduating with debt is very much on their minds. Building meaningful partnerships with students while they are here can lead to lifelong bonds that create a sense of pride, gratitude and loyalty, so that when the time comes that graduates can afford to support their alma mater they do so willingly, with fond remembrances of their time at PLU. Equally important is the idea of weaving the values of care and service—so deeply embedded in our mission—into everything we do, and celebrating student volunteerism. We should be very proud of the fact that we are ranked third in the nation among small universities for the number of Peace Corps volunteers we produce, and by the fact that more than 70% of students volunteer in the community during their time at PLU.

What are the trends in college/university enrollment? In liberal arts schools?

A: A good place to start is with a survey that was just released by The Chronicle of Higher Education, in partnership with the Council of Independent Colleges and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. In a nutshell, it shows small private colleges faring slightly worse, compared with last year. In fact, more than half of the nation’s private colleges had trouble with enrollment and/or net tuition goals, with the smallest colleges struggling the most. Meanwhile, the enrollment picture for state universities has improved slightly: among state universities, 43% met both enrollment and revenue goals. These statistics are reflected in the state of Washington. The publics have been adding faculty and enrollment slots as the state has been restoring some of the funding slashed during the recession. UW, for instance, has been able to freeze tuition for the past two years and opened up 1,000 additional seats; consequently, all the privates statewide are dealing with enrollment pressure.

But the good news is that 38% of the responding private colleges met both enrollment and revenue goals. An additional 19% met either enrollment or revenue goals—indicating that private universities are far from doomed, as some pundits have suggested.

Each institution faces situations and challenges of its own, but there are macro trends that we can point to: One of the biggest? After two decades of a steady supply of high school graduates, projections indicate declining numbers nationally. For every 100 18-year-olds nationally, there are only 95 4-year-olds. Not surprisingly, the Northeast and Midwest show the sharpest drop-offs. And, overall, fewer young children are white or black. In half of the states, more young children are Asian, and almost everywhere more are Hispanic, especially along the West Coast.