Three universities share how they're responding to complex recruitment challenges

Focusing their efforts on retaining students who show promise but may need more support

Regional public universities are reassessing traditional recruitment strategies amid declining enrollment rates.  

Many regional public universities, which serve large shares of lower-income students, are struggling to bring in more students while grappling with a decline in state funding. But unlike many public flagship universities, regional institutions cannot afford to recruit students from far away. Complicating the matter, regional universities must also balance their efforts with their obligation to serve local students.

Historically, about four-fifths of the students at Youngstown State University (YSU) came from only five of 88 counties in Ohio. But enrollment decreased by 17.5% over four years, resulting in layoffs and pay freezes.

The university has taken a number of steps to boost its residential population, including a new direct-marketing plan aimed at reaching students from Cleveland to Buffalo and Columbus to Pittsburgh. YSU has also hired three part-time regional recruiters to increase awareness of the university throughout Ohio.

The size of YSU's first-year class increased last fall by 13.5% over the year before, with students coming from 17 more counties. All of the spaces in a new student apartment complex have been filled for next fall.

Also see: Facing flattening enrollments? Alternative student pathways might help.

"It used to be, sit back and wait for whoever walks in the door," says Gary Swegan, associate vice president for enrollment planning and management. "But we cannot be a five-county institution anymore. There's just no way."

Tom Taylor, senior consultant and principal at Royall and Company, agrees. "Youngstown State has been both strategic and smart in pursuing opportunity. They've expanded their footprint in key secondary markets while making sure they've saturated their primary recruitment areas. They're making sure they don't leave opportunity on the table."

Northern Michigan University (NMU) was also forced to rethink its recruitment strategies after enrollment fell by 400 students last fall.

NMU created an Extended Learning and Community Engagement Division to boost its outreach to more students. One of the division's first initiatives, the "Northern Promise," aimed to help local high school students earn 12 to 15 college credits at no cost to participants. The program includes a "second-start" pathway to NMU for high school students who are able to demonstrate competency in reading, writing, and math, even if their grades and test scores suggest otherwise. As part of the initiative, NMU hopes to build partnerships with local businesses that could hire students in the future.

Catering to underserved students

When shaping their classes, regional public institutions also consider their mission to serve low-income and minority students.

A recent analysis of federal data by EAB found that the percentage of students eligible for Pell Grants at regional public schools increased to 43% in 2012, up from 33% five years ago.

"It's much easier to say, 'We want to just go out and get more high-scholarship students who can all pay and graduate in four years'" but "that's not the norm now," says Terricita Sass, associate vice president for enrollment management at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU).

The university has seen a number of minority student applicants from underserved high schools, many of whom need more academic support. SCSU has expanded its summer bridge program to provide ongoing mentoring to certain freshmen and sophomores. It's one way the university hopes to retain at-risk students. 

How students are recruited can make an impact on retention, Taylor points out. "In working with the Student Success Collaborative, we've found that first-generation students whose parents are engaged during the search phase of recruitment are far more likely to be retained into their sophomore year. Getting and leveraging parent contact information as early as possible can not only help build an entering class but help ensure that class is successful once enrolled."

"If we can retain more students, there's less pressure on recruiting, less of a revolving door," Sass says (Hoover, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/22).

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