One View: Perspective on Admission

A higher ed professional spends an academic year with the IC enrollment team, just as the economy implodes. by Rit Fuller ’73

It began innocuously enough. I had returned to IC during Alumni Weekend in June 2008 with a few friends for our 35th reunion. I must admit that I had not been the most involved alumnus, and I was not quite sure what to expect. A chance encounter with a former accounting teacher, followed by a summer of unexpected events at the College, led to my taking a nine-month position on campus — and gaining a whole new appreciation for my alma mater.

I had spent my entire professional career in higher education, and had been the dean of admission at RIT, Johns Hopkins, and finally Hamilton College. Upon leaving Hamilton in 2003, I began an enrollment consulting practice that has taken me to colleges and universities across the country. I give you this background because my experience with these other institutions framed my perspective on my return to Ithaca.

The esteemed accounting professor mentioned above was Carl Sgrecci ’69, who this summer is marking his 40th anniversary as an employee of Ithaca College; he is now vice president for finance and administration. The unexpected — and unfortunate — events included an under-enrolled freshman class, fewer returning students than had been budgeted for, and a terminally ill dean of enrollment, Larry Metzger, M.S. ’87, who passed away during my tenure. Provost Kathleen Rountree, to whom enrollment services reported, asked if I could help out during this difficult time, while things could be stabilized. “Of course,” I responded, and came aboard even though a commitment of two to three days per week was all I would be able to manage around other commitments.

We began the year with a clear charge: to meet or, if possible, exceed the ambitious enrollment goals set for us by the board of trustees for fall 2009. Despite a decline in demographics (smaller student populations in high school graduating classes, a trend that will continue for another decade), a worldwide economic collapse, and an unparalleled competitive environment, we achieved our goals. In fact, we overachieved: We enrolled the largest class in the history of Ithaca College (approximately 2,050 as of this writing; our goal was 1,750).

Quality thresholds — that is, academic profiles of these incoming students — were similar to previous years; while slightly lower than last year, they were nearly identical to 2007. We spent considerably more money on financial aid than we’d planned, as a direct result of the economic environment — families needed the help, and we decided this was an important way to spend budget dollars.

The key word in this story is “we.” Our success was a collaborative effort the magnitude of which any Bomber team would be proud — as should any alumnus or alumna. From President Tom Rochon and Provost Rountree to the deans of the schools and divisions, the marketing communications staff, tour guides, student and faculty volunteers, coaches, and campus grounds crews, everyone played a role. And, critically important, I was surrounded by admission and financial aid staff who worked tirelessly to realize our ambitious goals. Director of admission Gerard Turbide, director of enrollment research Yuko Mulugetta, and director of financial aid Larry Chambers are all consummate professionals who soon became trusted colleagues.

As a higher education enrollment consultant, I am keenly aware of the über-competitive environment that Ithaca and nearly every other college and university faces. We’re all dealing with higher costs, no increases in government support, a decline in the endowment, an uncertain economy, the scramble to make sense of emerging online degree options, increased expectations by consumers, an unprecedented demand for financial aid, and the demographics of fewer high school graduates to populate our classrooms, especially in the Northeast.

IC needs to find its voice regarding our institutional and individual school brands, and to give breadth and depth to the College’s new curricular offering, (IC)2, now under development (see “President’s Corner”).

This is not a time for timidity, in my opinion. Our results this year confirmed for me that Ithaca is an attractive college where students and families continue to find value. As an alumnus who had the extraordinary opportunity to reengage with IC and who was privileged to be a part of the day-to-day fabric for nearly a year, I am optimistic that our “shining light on South Hill” will continue to prosper for generations to come.

Rit Fuller ’73 is principal of Rit Fuller Enrollment Consulting.