Trendless Summer

Enrollments this season are up at some colleges, down at others -- but a few institutions prove that marketing can pay dividends.
June 17, 2011

Last year, many colleges enjoyed record-breaking summer enrollment, growth that was largely attributed to the poor economy and students wanting to get out of college as quickly and cheaply as possible (many institutions mark down tuition and housing costs during the summer term).

This year, the results are more mixed, and it’s harder to discern a trend. While many colleges are reporting declines in summer enrollment for the first time since the economic downturn started, a few institutions are reaping the benefits of concerted marketing efforts – which, in one of the most extreme cases, boosted new student enrollment by 70 percent.

“It was just phenomenal,” said Andy J. Benoit Jr., director of admissions at the University of New Orleans, whose summer enrollment of new students surged from 333 to 567 this year. While the growth doesn’t cross over to general enrollment -- which is down 1.8 percent this year -- it has administrators feeling good. “We’re creeping back toward the kinds of successes we had prior to Hurricane Katrina,” Benoit said. “This level of growth that we’re seeing is promising.”

The New Orleans administrators attribute it to a barrage of print and e-mail literature they sent to incoming freshmen as well as other potential students – the bulk of the new-student growth was made up of transfers and incoming freshmen looking to get a head start. (Benoit said the transfers were largely driven by the new ease with which students can earn a state associate degree across institutions.)

The University of Oklahoma, meanwhile, reversed its “fairly linear downward trend” this summer. The steady decline "ran counter to what we were hearing was going on at other universities,” said Kelly R. Damphousse, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and coordinator of Oklahoma’s summer session. So, after forming a steering committee to look around at what the successful universities were doing, university officials decided to make some significant changes. “Our concern was that students didn’t even think about it because it wasn’t part of the culture,” Damphousse said. “We did a couple of things that I think were pretty courageous, and pretty needed.”

The institutions that were well-attended year-round had summer programs that were more centralized than Oklahoma’s. In prior years, colleges and even departments would plan independently, which often caused confusion and difficulties with scheduling, Damphousse said. What’s more, offices like financial aid and housing were operating on their own and not considering what special accommodations summer students might need. So the university decided to shift to a more streamlined system in which each unit would have a liaison, who would report to the two administrators in charge of the coordination effort, Provost Nancy L. Mergler and Nicholas S. Hathaway, executive vice president of administration and finance.

Perhaps more important, after surveying students on why they weren’t taking summer classes and what it would take for them to change their minds (the survey was later distributed to faculty and administrators to help with planning), Oklahoma officials realized a major deterrent was the three-week break between the end of spring term and the start of the summer one. Students didn’t want to go home, come back for classes and then go home again, so the university shook up its calendar, moving summer session forward to begin the Monday following spring finals. It also slashed the cost for summer dorms to $100 a month.

The last change that Oklahoma made -- and besides the calendar shift, Damphousse said, the one that had the most impact -- was to deploy a “heavy marketing blitz” that included free summer session T-shirts (bearing the words, “Helping students catch up, stay on track or get ahead”). Officials also created a new specialized website to help students find classes more easily, and an advertising campaign that utilized social media to get students’ attention – and mailed postcards home to get parents’ attention.

The payoff? Summer enrollment is up 27 percent this year, after having declined every year since 2005. Administrators have been pleasantly surprised by the immediate response to their efforts. “When we started this, there was a sense, I think, that we wouldn’t see any change this summer,” Damphousse said. “We’re not back to where we were five years ago, but we’re on our way.” He wasn’t sure why the drop happened in the first place.

Many colleges haven’t been so fortunate. At Western Kentucky University, online enrollments are up 3 percent, but there’s been an overall decrease of 1.5 percent. It’s not the only institution where the numbers are following that pattern: at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, on-campus enrollment has decreased steadily over the past five years, while online has gone in the opposite direction. Amherst hasn’t made final projections for this year but it’s seeing the same trend, which resulted in a 6 percent increase in general enrollment from 2009 to 2010; the growth was driven by a 25 percent rise in online course-taking that outweighed the 15 percent decline in students taking classes on campus.

Janet M. Lange, executive director of the North American Association of Summer Sessions, said that while she’s only heard anecdotes and hasn’t been able to establish a general trend for enrollments this year, what’s going on at Amherst fits the bill. “What we heard in general is that online enrollments are up, classroom enrollments are down,” she said.

At Miami University, in Ohio, graduate enrollments have risen 3 percent but undergraduates are down 8 percent. At Stockton College, in New Jersey, meanwhile, fewer students are showing up at all levels, with 11 and 10 percent declines in undergraduate and graduate students, respectively. Of the students who are enrolling, 57 percent are opting for online courses. “[The overall decrease] suggests itself that tuition price points in a poor economy matter more than ever,” G. Jan Colijn, dean of general studies at Stockton, said via e-mail. “Though we discount undergraduate housing 20 percent and tuition 15 percent in summer, the demand appears to be inelastic. The notion that the state of the economy and summer enrollment is inversely related may no longer hold up, certainly for the publics.”

At the University of California at Berkeley, though, summer enrollment has exceeded expectations. Richard Russo, director of Berkeley summer sessions, said last year that he thought enrollment had peaked at a little under 15,000. But this year more than 500 additional students are expected to enroll, for a small but surprising increase of 3 percent. “Our efforts to increase capacity by expanding summer study abroad, online courses, and internship programs proved to be successful,” Russo said in an e-mail. “We have also seen an increase in visitor enrollments that are increasingly represented by international students. I suspect our increased efforts in recruiting -- and the weak dollar -- played a role in those increased enrollments.”

Three Rivers Community College, in Missouri, has been busy expanding degree options (including new online and associate ones) and creating and expanding programs like green diesel and health information technology at its main location in Poplar Bluff, and at its six satellite locations throughout the state. But President Devin Stephenson doesn’t think that’s the only reason why the college’s summer headcount increased 24 percent from 2008-10 and is projected to increase another 15 percent this year. “I’ve said that this is the golden age of the community college,” Stephenson said. “We’re dealing with this whole idea of how community colleges are making education accessible. We’re seeing all boats rise as the tide rises, as they say.”

In fact, the growth has caught the president a little off-guard. “It certainly is welcome, but it does produce significant demand on our personnel,” Stephenson said. (They’d better get used to it: Three Rivers is also anticipating its highest-ever enrollment this fall.) “I think there’s sort of a spirit of haste among the country, our residents and our citizens that basically are saying summer is much like any other semester. Before, traditionally, we thought of a typical college year just being fall and spring, and then you go home for the summer and do whatever you’re going to do. Now, it is just becoming almost a year-round obsession, until the degree is attained, or the certificate is attained, or the educational goal is attained.”

That may not be true at all colleges, but maybe next year.


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