How Eastern Michigan Filled Its Class (and Then Some)

University not only recruited more students than last year, but also topped figure from the year before.

September 7, 2021
Eastern Michigan University
New students move in last month.

Indiana State University is typical of Midwestern regional state universities this fall. Enrollment is 9,459, down 12.6 percent from last fall's figure (during the pandemic). The problems cited by officials there would sound familiar at similar institutions in the Midwest and New England: a falling population of new high school graduates, and those who do graduate are having a tough time with the pandemic. The university has introduced a new Indiana State Advantage program -- which provides Pell Grant-eligible students with extra funds and all students with a grant of up to $3,000 for an out-of-classroom experience. But that will help with next year's students, not this year's.

Of course there are states like California and Texas, where population growth protects the regional public universities and they continue to enroll record numbers of students. But states in the Midwest are a different story.

All of which makes Eastern Michigan University's exceptionally strong enrollment picture this fall surprising. Not only did Eastern Michigan enroll 20 percent more first-year students than it did last year (when most of the university's courses were taught online), but it was up 7 percent from fall 2019, before the pandemic. Although the number of high school graduates in Michigan continues to fall, Eastern Michigan has recruited and enrolled minority students who in the past have been less likely than other students to enroll.

Eastern Michigan is enrolling more than 2,250 new first-year students to campus this fall. The overall high school grade point average of new students is 3.43, the highest ever for an incoming EMU class.

At the same time, the class is more diverse than any previous class at Eastern Michigan. Nearly 44 percent of new students are not white, with 28 percent African American and 10 percent Latinx.

The large class of new students also boosted the number of students living on campus. More than 2,750 students have made a deposit for housing this fall, compared to 2,031 students in student housing last year. That's an increase of 35 percent. And Eastern Michigan offered discounted single room availability to anyone who requested that option. Single rooms account for approximately 36 percent of the students in university housing.

"It's been very purposeful," James Smith, the president, said of Eastern Michigan's strategy.

He said Eastern Michigan has had success in the past with a campaign for international students. Early in the Trump administration, in 2017, at a time when many feared international students would abandon American universities, Eastern Michigan installed 108 banners featuring photographs of 108 students from more than 40 countries. The banners, installed on light posts across the campus and in the surrounding city of Ypsilanti, include the hashtag #YouAreWelcomeHere.

Smith said a similar approach was used this year, with the focus on Michigan residents.

Kevin Kucera, vice president of enrollment management, said it took a team effort to build the class.

Specifically, the university:

  • Cast itself as "an institution of opportunity," Smith said. It is 30 to 45 minutes outside of Detroit (depending on traffic) and embraces the city and its suburbs.
  • Offered academic scholarships of $2,500 to $8,000, in addition to full scholarships for some students. (Tuition is $6,975 a semester.)
  • Adjusted scholarships to reflect the university's switch to test optional.
  • Made quick decisions. A student could learn about Eastern Michigan, send in his or her grades, and receive a scholarship offer instantly.

The university also resumed more classes on campus. In the last academic year, only about 15 percent of classes (primarily laboratory courses) met in person. "Last year was pretty lonely," Smith said.

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This year, more than 65 percent of classes are in person. Smith said he is "very, very cautious" going into a new academic year, and safety takes precedence. But he noted that most students want to be fully on campus.

"We've got a very comprehensive plan," and the university is hoping for the best, Smith added.

Elizabeth Nnangobya is a freshman at Eastern Michigan. She said that as an African American, she felt welcome at Eastern Michigan. She sees people like herself, and also other minority students.

"It has just made me feel comfortable," she said.

She plans to major in entrepreneurship and minor in music.

One way Eastern Michigan made her feel comfortable was offering a full tuition scholarship. "It was nerve-racking thinking about paying for college before that," she said.

Nate Jacobs is another first-year student. Growing up outside Detroit, he said, he had visited the campus over the years and felt comfortable there.

"It felt very homey," he said.

He has been particularly impressed with faculty members' knowledge and friendliness. Many students would be surprised by the latter, he said, but he has found his professors always trying to reach out and to be friendly. He said he was surprised, but most of the professors ask to be called by their first names.

Jacobs wants to major in sports management, and he already has an internship with the university's marketing department.

"I'll be on the sidelines at football games," he said.


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