The dog and pony show

One of the big advantages of working at a private higher ed institution, especially these days, is that we don’t have to rely on state legislatures (i.e., gangs of brainless twits) for funding.  On the other hand, one of the big disadvantages of working at a private non-elite institution, especially these days, is that we don’t have access to a guaranteed revenue stream.

Whatever bad things I may say or imply about my institution, it’s a much better place to be a student (or even a staff member) than faculty.  But, we are very susceptible to enrollment fluctuations. Many tenure-track positions were lost due to the Great Recession, including ones where there was a faculty member actually in the position at the time.  My department lost one-third of its full-time teaching capacity in the 18 months after the stock market crash.  In our rural area, we don’t have easy access to adjuncts to make up for things like that.  In the time I’ve been here, less than 10% of our credit hours have been taught by adjuncts, and that’s mostly labs.  So, teaching loads and class sizes went up considerably, even with fewer students at the institution.

Recruitment of students is thus critical, just like it especially is at all small non-elite institutions.  For us, the key is to get the students and parents onto our campus.  It’s not that our campus is all that special, although it is in a scenic location.  But, for those looking for a less impersonal institution than a state McUniversity and are especially interested in our degree programs that not a lot of small schools have, we look even better in person than on paper…er, pixels.  Our website looks rather sterile, but we have a much more personable feel in campus.  This is something we (staff, faculty, students, and administrators alike) are expected to maintain.

Students and parents often show up on campus on random days, and our culture is that if a professor in the appropriate program is not in class or a meeting, we will see the student on short notice.  The expectation is that most faculty will be on campus much or most of the workday 5 days a week, with the overall average probably being something like 4.75, so it’s usually easy to find someone to do this.  In this sense, our accessibility to visitors mirrors our general accessibility to our current students.

Our big events are a Saturday dedicated to prospective students (Fall), and one for admitted students (Spring).  About one-quarter of our faculty are involved in these events.  The students (and parents) get a hour-long presentation/Q&A session in the morning with a representative or two from their first choice of degree program.  We do get some movement between degree programs but students don’t come here just for the hell of it and usually have a good idea what they are here for.  Then, there is a second opportunity in the afternoon to get a briefing in their second choice, if appropriate.  There are all of the usual tours of the facilities (I am sometimes tapped for this as well), and those of us who are part of the degree program briefings have lunch at the cafeteria with “our” students/families between the morning and afternoon meetings.

In one case, I had lunch with a student and her family that I had given a short-notice tour of a facility on a “random” visit.  It wasn’t directly related to her degree program, but she was interested in it.  This is part of the deal too, making a student from another degree program feel welcome when the opportunity arises.  My department teaches a lot of service courses, so our department’s health depends a lot on those other degree programs.

Near the time of the spring student event, faculty call admitted students that we haven’t seen in person.  Some departments try to shirk this duty, but we distribute the info sheets on the students among the tenure-stream faculty and try to talk to all of them.  About half of admitted students into our department programs end up matriculating, but we have generally talked to 80-90% of them.

I’m not 100% comfortable with this, but I kick ass at the dog and pony show, albeit at a high cost of mental and physical energy, and the caveat that I’m better at the in-person stuff than the phone calls.  The good thing is that I’ve been able to do this without feeling like I’m misleading the prospective students.  Emphasizing the positive, sure, but also being realistic.

Overall, we’ve been doing a better job of recruiting students, presenting them with the opportunities available here, making good on those opportunities, and retaining students.  Totally coincidentally, we’re on a several year run of increasing enrollments…


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