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Enrollment Update and Establishing Future Strategy

Contributed by News on 06/18/20 

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We have been talking for months about the challenging year we were anticipating with regard to enrollment, knowing that shifts in demographics were already negatively affecting us (read “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education,” a book by Nathan Grawe, for a detailed analysis). We also knew there was foundational work to be done, both within MES and across campus, work that significantly impacts enrollment. This includes but is not limited to examining our brand strategy and website, the academic programs we offer, our pricing and aid strategies, and the experiences of our current students.

Smaller Incoming Class Will Have Long-Term Effect on Enrollment

Add to this a global pandemic and recession that further altered the dynamics of college admission and the higher education landscape, and our deposits for fall 2020 are not where we wanted them to be, particularly for our first-year class. Yield is down approximately 3.5 points, and our first-year enrollment is down more than 20 percent from last year; at present, there are only 1,155 first-year students deposited, and even with additional summer enrollment efforts, I anticipate we will enroll a first-year class of fewer than 1,100 students after melt. Transfer applications are down as well.

I can only imagine where we might be if not for the more than 200 staff, faculty, students, and alumni who did everything possible to enhance our yield.

Retention is a critical part of the enrollment lifecycle. Many indicators right now are positive, including strong course registrations for fall and no current spikes in requests for leaves of absence or transcripts indicating potential transfers out. However, the current pandemic and recession are rapidly changing national and state conditions and may adversely impact college retention across the country. IC is not immune to this. In a normal year, we would expect to see more than 4,000 previously enrolled students returning to campus this fall, but we know that could change.

This significant decline in our projected average enrollment for the coming year has major implications for our budget, not just this year, but in every future year these students are enrolled at IC as the entering 2020 cohort.

What We Must Do in the Short-Term

In the short term, we must be focused on critical work to shore up this year and work on the next, including:

  • Melt prevention and generating additional enrollment
  • Recruiting and enrolling transfer students
  • Staying connected with our current students so they know we want them back this fall
  • Aggressively recruiting high school juniors and prospective transfers for Fall 2021

We will also conduct an extensive forensic analysis of this year’s enrollment cycle to inform our work and identify opportunities to strengthen our efforts.

Establishing a Long-Term, Data-Driven Enrollment Strategy

Last month, I shared with the Board of Trustees a framework for strategic enrollment based upon the extensive feedback I have gathered from staff and faculty, existing data, and best practices in the field. This plan reminds us that our path forward is strategic, data-driven, and embraces a sense of urgency, while also fully recognizing that the work we are doing as a part of Ithaca Forever (upon which our enrollment strategy is built) is exactly what is needed for the long-term viability of IC.

During the next month and a half, I will be working closely with the MES Leadership Team and other critical partners on campus to further flesh out the framework to include metrics, timelines, and key people to involve in different strategies. Later in the summer, our team will present the strategy to the community through a series of open meetings. As I have shared during my short time here at IC, everyone has a part to play in enrollment—in recruiting, admitting, yielding, retaining, and graduating a class.

The plan is built on five broad major themes:

  1. Branding and marketing – how we distinguish ourselves in the marketplace
  2. Right size, right program mix, and right structure
  3. Retention and graduation – as I share regularly, enrollment management is not just getting students in the door
  4. Finances – aid, pricing, and revenue generation
  5. Recruitment and admission strategies and tactics

Collaborative, Foundational Work Needed to Ensure Sustainability

Lest anyone think we have the luxury of time to move forward, we do not; the long-term health of Ithaca College depends on us acting with urgency and immediacy while engaging in infrastructure work that will ensure sustainability over time. A good deal of major foundational work is already in progress, including:

  • implementation and more robust use of Slate as our Constituent Relationship Management (CRM) tool
  • development of a recruitment campaign and brand platform for more consistent and authentic messaging about IC
  • major research into our market position, pricing, and aid awarding
  • academic program prioritization
  • focus on an enhanced student experience in and out of the classroom
  • non-academic program review

As we have seen throughout Ithaca College’s storied history (and as recently as this past semester), we are a resilient community, one that comes together to make progress happen even in the face of, and sometimes because of, daunting challenges. More than ever, I ask for each and every one of you to approach our institutional enrollment challenge with a spirit of collaboration, a commitment to excellence, and an understanding that there are no silver bullets. As I shared in our meetings, we cannot simply recruit our way out of this. Moving the college forward will require the vision and holistic approach laid out for us in Ithaca Forever. And it will require tough choices; creative thinking; kicking the tires hard with regard to our current ways of doing things; and bold, urgent action. I am confident, together, we can do this.

Laurie Koehler
Vice President for Marketing and Enrollment Strategy

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