Southeast Idaho affords much that is desirable, including fresh air, unlimited outdoor recreation and lack of crowding. However, rural areas like ours are facing serious public education challenges, including financial obstacles, increased scrutiny and new expectations for validating student learning. Add to these an urgent need to increase graduation rates and combat low college-going rates. Some today are calling the situation not a challenge but a crisis.
The situation has not gone unnoticed. The Idaho State Board of Education has made improving the rate of students going on to college a top priority. At my own institution, Idaho State University, many are diligently participating in efforts designed to respond to the challenge. Even so, as dean of the College of Arts & Letters, I have realized that we cannot simply leave the work of recruitment and retention to enrollment specialists. Our college must join in the efforts. Over the last year or so, I believe we have uncovered some effective, sustainable strategies.
First, some context. Idaho State is located in a small metropolitan area of just under 70,000. The region includes eight counties that are home to 60 high schools with fewer than 20,000 students. In many of these rural communities, over 90 percent of students are graduating high school. But less than 50 percent of these southeast Idaho students are going on to enroll in higher education. Why?
As a cognitive psychologist and academic, I did my research, exploring Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, academic literature and university admissions and enrollment management best practices. I found promising strategies and tools, but few if any focused specifically on the challenges of attracting rural, domestic students. I tried nonconventional approaches to studying our own institutional enrollment data and did a lot of talking with superintendents, principals, high school teachers, parents, students and community leaders.
In the end my conclusion was this: when it comes to responding to the most pressing challenges facing higher education in rural America, the answer is rather simple. It’s relationships.
This surprised me given so much attention to high school standards and teacher accountability and, in the world of the university, marketing strategies, facilities upgrades, athletic team performance and cutting-edge technology. But a study published in 2010 by the American Journal of Business Education examined what information sources influenced student decisions to enroll at a university. Among the 15 options, the influence students rated as having the most powerful effect on choosing an institution was personal contact with a university faculty or staff member or a coach. Such contacts offer students relationships that function as reminders that a life-changing educational experience is available to them.
I also discovered that, compared to the rest of the state, the three most populous counties surrounding Idaho State University had among the lowest rates of high school graduates attending postsecondary education within two years of graduation. The students in these counties are the most accessible, and forming strong relationships with these students should be easiest and most natural. So, in light of this, the immediate questions became, “Why aren’t we as the College of Arts & Letters community spending more time building valuable relationships with our local high school students and teachers?” and “Why aren’t we mentoring these students so that enrolling in higher education after high school graduation is a given?”
In response, the college started three programs to help establish stronger relationships between us and local high schools. First was the Liberal Arts High (LAH) program in which professors traveled to area high schools to give presentations based on their areas of expertise and to share information about Idaho State. During visits, students made personal connections with an outstanding college faculty member, hopefully also exciting them about the idea of attending ISU for a semester-long course from their LAH professor. Meaningful relationships developed quickly and broadly as, in the first year alone, faculty visited over 5,000 students at 28 Idaho high schools.
University recruiters do important, essential work. However, through LAH, our faculty can be more personal and build relationships in a different way. By showing up and spending time connecting with high school students, they help students recognize the importance of a college degree. Plus, with the number of different faculty visiting throughout the year, our commitment to the students, the teachers and the high school in general is evident.
Recent enrollment data at Idaho State show interesting correlations. After years of declining university enrollments, the College of Arts & Letters was up 11.7 percent (census day head count) for the fall 2017 semester. This is significant growth given our size, given broad misunderstandings about the “value” of pursuing liberal arts fields and given that this overall enrollment is attenuated by smaller sophomore, junior and senior classes. New in-state student enrollment for those declaring majors in the Arts & Letters areas increased from 215 in fall 2016 to 378 in fall 2017, a 75.8 percent increase. LAH efforts focused on our own and two neighboring counties, and the 2016 to 2017 enrollment increases for those counties were substantial: Bannock County, 44.3 percent; Bingham County, 90 percent; Bonneville County, 122.6 percent. Further, there was a particularly notable 171 percent increase in new students who registered as “undecided” but still as Arts & Letters affiliated. We firmly believe this was due to our outreach efforts.
In addition to Liberal Arts High outreach, we also recognized that rural Idaho students often need significant financial help if they are to consider attending college. The Road Scholars Scholarship program was started to provide additional funding while establishing relationships with area students to foster interest in college and Idaho State. Working with area high school principals, we identified deserving students with need and awarded $2,000 scholarships based on their grade point average and a short essay outlining the students’ goals and dreams. We made sure to present the award in a public celebration at the students’ schools -- during an assembly, class session or student meeting. I felt fortunate to be there personally to meet the students, offer the scholarship and join in the celebration. Again, the personal connection, I firmly believe, was as important as, if not more important than, the actual financial support.
Our scholarship came with the requirement that these students formally apply to Idaho State, and that automatically includes being considered for other financial support. As a result, the 14 Road Scholars Scholarship recipients ended up receiving over $120,000 in support for their Idaho State education. One scholarship recipient who comes from a farming family and rural community 30 minutes from campus told us that attending college was never in his plans. But that all changed, he said, when he received the Road Scholars Scholarship and several other scholarships from Idaho State University.
In addition to providing valuable financial support, this program also helped the college develop the kind of relationships with local high school principals, teachers, parents and students that encourage students to go on. The yield rate for these scholarships was 87 percent compared to the 43 percent yield rate for standard institutional scholarships. One assistant principal wrote to me saying, “After you presented the ‘road scholarship’ last year, I had several junior students approach me about the scholarship opportunities at ISU. One junior couldn’t believe that a ‘college dean’ would personally deliver a scholarship to a high school student.”
Continuing with our focus on relationships, the college is now in the process of implementing the On-Campus Dual-Enrollment pilot program, an extension of the ISU Early College program, which allows students to earn college credit while in high school. Early College at ISU has been available for some time and has steadily grown in both enrollment and offerings. The On-Campus pilot program provides local high school students an opportunity to take college courses not available as Early College options at their high schools. Courses and professors are strategically selected to offer something unique and valuable. Starting small but growing, we hope and expect that the opportunity will help high school students build confidence in themselves, form relationships with some accomplished faculty members and future peers, and develop realistic expectations of life as a college student. As of yet, we know little about our pilot program’s impact on yield rate or enrollment and retention as compared to our traditional Early College, but we are quite optimistic.
In the end, we have found that student recruitment is about building and maintaining sustainable relationships. Our state and our university enrollment office have taken important steps, but their efforts by necessity are broad in scope and general in application. As such, they cannot directly address local needs nor support the kind of personal relationship building we have been able to foster through our College of Arts & Letters initiatives. Building these relationships has already had a major impact on Idaho State University, as well as on our local high schools. Students are realizing what a college education can do for them, and they are embracing opportunities. By connecting with the members of our community and with students and teachers in our local high schools, we can do much to help meet the educational needs of rural communities.