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Why Having a “Philosophy of Enrollment” Matters

Posted by:
March 8, 2016

This spring, the Strategic Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (known as SEMAC) will finalize PLU’s philosophy of enrollment, with the intention to ask our Board of Regents to adopt a final draft statement with enrollment targets in May. (See the current draft here on the Provost webpage.) SEMAC is a university standing committee with the responsibility to lead the development and the ongoing evaluation of a strategic enrollment management plan, and to help the institution achieve and maintain the optimum recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of students.

An important part of SEMAC’s work is to help the administration set enrollment goals that allow for the long-term fiscal sustainability of the institution so as to better provide a high-quality educational program for our students, and a stable and vibrant work environment for our employees.

PLU will benefit if we set specific, repeatable multi-year targets for the number of entering freshman and graduate students rather than react each year to the vagaries of the marketplace and competitive pressures. During some years, enrollment increases and we scramble to ensure that we have the appropriate academic and student life resources in place. In other years, enrollment decreases and we are left supporting programs that may not generate sufficient net revenue.

Stability of enrollment and an optimal student/faculty ratio from one year to the next are important priorities. Equally important is serving a student population that reflects the diverse population of our immediate surrounding communities, from which the majority of our students are drawn. These priorities operate in concert and also must not be decoupled from the priority and dynamics of student retention.

As part of the campus-wide conversation on our philosophy of enrollment, I recently discussed this issue at a Program Leaders meeting and asked attendees to think about what this means for student fit and persistence, university finances, and academic planning.

Here are my answers to some of the questions that emerged. I invite you to ask more questions and share your thoughts below, or at upcoming student and faculty/staff forums this spring.

Q&A with PLU Program Leaders

How much does the enrollment target affect a single unit/department rather than the whole?

I think we can decide on an overall size of the institution with the understanding that the faculty governance and committee system will be working with the Provost’s Office on how that affects individual departments/programs. We also need to acknowledge and better understand how pedagogy, external standards, our commitment to General Education, and other factors affect the individual and collaborative capacity of programs.

*Note: All comments are moderated

In light of a reduced enrollment, how do we identify low-performing programs and eliminate them? What does that mean for reducing or redeploying faculty members?

We now have a curriculum designed for 3,600+ students, but we only have 3,200 students and 90% of our gross revenue comes from student tuition and fees.  Last year we made significant reductions in the number of faculty positions (a total of 17 FTE), but we still need to reform our curriculum to fit the size of institution we eventually agree is optimal.  This is among the important tasks of the faculty committees and the Faculty Assembly.

*Note: All comments are moderated

Should we be looking at attracting students to certain majors over others?

We tend to recruit fewer students who know early what they plan to major in (I think we’re at about 10% of students who come in as first-year students with a clear plan for a major).  I’ve been at institutions where 90% come in with a major decided already.  I think a mix is good, although I’m not sure we as an institution have a clear idea of what the exact mix should be.

*Note: All comments are moderated

We can attract higher quality students if it is a little harder to be admitted.

True.  During our enrollment challenge of the last couple of years, we have maintained two important indicators of quality: GPA/SAT and Net Tuition Revenue Per Student.  We didn’t sacrifice quality to bring in the numbers we wanted; we stuck to our commitment to quality and preparation.

*Note: All comments are moderated

If we add new graduate programs does this mean that we are taking away other graduate programs?

So far, the feeling about enrollment is that graduate programs and student numbers will rise (there’s discussion of going from 8% in 2012 to 10% in 2016 to something like 20-25% in 2025), even as we hold the undergraduate numbers close to where they are now, or a little larger.  Since the adoption of PLU 2020 we have had a three-prong test for our graduate programs: are they consistent with the mission, are they academically excellent, and do they bring positive net revenue to the university.  All nine of our graduate programs are solidly enrolled, and we are currently at the highest number of graduate students (331) in over 20 years.

*Note: All comments are moderated

What is our philosophy in deciding which programs to add or take away?

I think the philosophy should be some combination of alignment with our mission, expertise, student demand, regional or national demand (in terms of jobs), regional competition, and opportunities to develop capacity through investments in pedagogy (such as PLUTO) and other strategies that provide for program sustainability. For example, in recent years, we’ve added programs mostly in areas where we have current strength (MSF, MSMR, DNP). But, PLU has also created a new program and hired an entire department to run it (MA in Marriage and Family Therapy back in the ‘70s); and we adopted a program from outside the university (MFA in Creative Writing). Both of those have been very successful. The only program discontinued in recent years is the major in Computer Engineering, and that decision came from the Department of Computer Science and Computer Engineering, with unanimous support of the Faculty Assembly. I could see movement toward more multi- or inter-disciplinary programs (e.g., “pre-approved” double or triple majors, like Philosophy, Politics & Economics, or dual degree programs like DNP-MBA), which might or might not involve changing our current majors. These kinds of curricular decisions need to be undertaken by the faculty committees and deliberated and voted on by Faculty Assembly.

*Note: All comments are moderated

How does student-faculty ratio impact our philosophy of enrollment?

The idea of the philosophy of enrollment is to establish the size of institution that we want. The task then is to ensure that we have the people and facilities needed to support the student body. Our habit over decades has been to follow a boom-and-bust cycle, which puts tremendous stress on the institution to manage.

I think we’ll be much better off if we can have a steady, predictable enrollment. Our student/faculty ratio is part of the decision about how best to accomplish our mission. We are currently at about 12.7:1, up from a low of about 12:3. For most of the last two decades, we have been at about 14:1. Personally, I don’t put much stock in student/faculty ratio as a measure of comparison between universities, since it doesn’t address the issue of teaching load. Many large public research universities have low student-faculty ratios, but they still have huge section sizes and students often can’t get to know their faculty.

*Note: All comments are moderated

If we plan for 650 first-year students in Fall 2016, what happens if 680 want to come?

With the philosophy of enrollment, we’re aiming to bring in predictable and steady classes each year.  Eventually, I expect that we’ll establish a wait list, which will help us manage our numbers even more precisely.  But, it’s possible that we can still be surprised—on the up side or the down side.  To manage any downturns, we’re working to establish best-practice levels of financial reserves (the third part of The Box plan).  Surprises on the up side will cause disruption, but will come with more resources to manage it.

*Note: All comments are moderated

How quickly can we create new sections of classes to accommodate growth?

Keeping a close tab on enrollment and the number of sections we need is one of the principal responsibilities of the team in the Provost’s Office who work closely with deans and chairs. The earlier we see enrollment trends developing, the easier it is to respond.  We’re aiming to establish a steady enrollment year-to-year, but we’ll plan as fast as we can to manage any surprises.  Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) will also help challenges like these, since more decision-making authority is devolved to the schools and divisions.

*Note: All comments are moderated

The discount rate continues to rise each year. When does that become unsustainable and how do we stop that trend?

I recommend we focus on the “Net Tuition Revenue Per Student” (NTRPS) rather than the discount rate.  Our NTRPS is steadily rising and that’s a solid indicator of the market’s perception of our quality and value.  Nationally, the NTRPS has been flat for private colleges, so our rising figure is all the more notable.  Our sticker price is right in the middle of our peer group in the Pacific Northwest, which is probably about where it should be.  I pay attention to the discount rate, but I only worry about it in relation to the NTRPS.

*Note: All comments are moderated

Is facility capacity part of the consideration for enrollment goals?

I would say so, especially in terms of keeping the undergraduate student body roughly where it is—because that’s the size of our facilities.  That is not to say, that we don’t have an opportunity to think about the use of our facilities in more creative and flexible ways that contribute to learning and that maximize the potential of the space that  we currently have. I would also say that many of us are thinking about how to keep the special character of a residential liberal arts college community as vibrant as possible.  In my own experience, there’s a tipping point around 4,000 or so above which the community changes character and feels a little more city-like and less intimate.

*Note: All comments are moderated

PLU must focus on value and try to find a way to deliver and maintain value rather than trying to cut the cost of operations.

I would argue that our steadily rising net tuition revenue per student is a strong measure of our pricing power in the marketplace.  As to budgets: we have no option but to live within our means.  We’ve made important strides in stemming losses, creating efficiencies, and imagining revenue-enhancing new activities.  RCM will enable even more such successes.  So, I would say that PLU is doing a good job of focusing on value and finding ways to deliver and maintain value.  But, no doubt, we can do even better.

*Note: All comments are moderated

Didn’t the goals of “The Box” resolution rely heavily on increases in total enrollment?

No, not necessarily—and not in the undergraduate program.  The Box plan calls for increases in revenue from the academic program (mostly graduate programs and continuing education), fundraising, auxiliary enterprises, and savings.

*Note: All comments are moderated

*Note: All comments are moderated