Why two colleges are bucking the enrollment growth trend

Leaders focus on selectivity

While many schools are working to grow their headcounts, others are choosing a different course.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Kellie Woodhouse profiles two institutions that made the decision to shrink and focus on alternative enrollment measures.

New York-based Wagner College reconsidered its strategy in 2008. Leaders realized the school was missing its enrollment targets as prospective students landed at colleges that offered bigger scholarships.

See also: More enrollment isn't the holy grail for every institution

Wagner leaders faced a choice: dramatically increase discounts—or continue losing prospects. They chose to let the prospects go. Wagner did not want to engage in the "discount wars," one administrator told Inside Higher Ed.

Wagner increased its average discount rate from 32% to 43%, closer to the national average of 48% but still below it. Enrollment dropped by 74 students from 2011 to 2015.

But Wagner also focused on keeping selectivity high. As a result, retention, academic quality, and revenue actually rose. Wagner has increased first-to-second-year retention from 78% in 2011 to 86% in 2015.

"It's about choosing not to grow if growing actually weakens the institution," Angelo Araimo, SVP for planning and enrollment, told Inside Higher Ed. "I don't think enough colleges are really thinking about it that way."

In Vermont, St. Michael's College is also focusing on selectivity over growth. The college's president, John Neuhauser, says rising discount rates are simply "not sustainable."

NACUBO agrees. Read more about why it called current tuition discount rates "not sustainable."

The institution plans to decrease enrollment from a high of about 2,000 in 2014 to around 1,850 over the next few years. The plan was suggested by a task force formed in the wake of the financial crisis.

Several forces are converging to make the enrollment market particularly competitive for smaller colleges, the task force concluded, such as increased price sensitivity and fewer high school graduates.

So St. Michael's is choosing to focus on attracting the best students rather than the most students, says Neuhauser. Early data suggest his strategy is paying off. Although enrollment fell this year, GPA scores and SAT scores rose (Woodhouse, Inside Higher Ed, 10/21).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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