Many professors and even department chairs pay little heed to enrollment, believing it falls under the purview of admissions. However, enrollment plays a substantial role in professorial workload and even salary. If enrollment keeps dropping, an entire department can be put on the chopping block.
These days everyone needs a little R&R: recruitment and retention, that is.
The new emphasis on R&R has to do with money. This is not news. Everything these days has to do with budget.
In the past, when higher education was better-funded, faculty lines were replaced when people resigned or retired. Now positions typically revert to the college or university for redistribution. Because most budget models are in part entrepreneurial, those professorial positions usually are assigned to units with stable or increasing enrollment.
Loss of a position means more professors teach extra classes; moreover, the breadth of offerings may shrink as experts in subfields are not replaced. But the bill for falling enrollment doesn’t stop there. Everything is affected from dining (fewer students in cafeterias) to lab fees (someone has to pay them) to residence hall bills (too many vacant rooms).
Other fees and tuition may rise as enrollment falls.
Declining enrollment occurs for a variety of reasons. At pricey institutions, including public ones that aren’t household names, the recession may be to blame. Student debt is another consideration. There are also perceptions about job opportunities in certain disciplines like mine (more on that later).
While lower enrollment affects everyone, it can have a devastating impact on the liberal arts and sciences.
At public universities, those colleges typically provide general education for other colleges, such as engineering, business and agriculture. As such, the liberal arts and sciences not only must serve their own majors but also everyone else’s.
There are a couple of ways to accomplish this budgetarily. Liberal arts deans can argue for a budget model that rewards student credit hours or they can advocate curricular streamlining (e.g., eliminating sequences, pedagogical duplication, outdated courses, etc.).The savvier deans argue for both. But at institutions that count only the number of majors, liberal arts disciplines that play a key role in providing general education can end up with the short end of the stick.
Problem is, central administration controls the budget model and professors control the pedagogy. Often it is easier to persuade central administration of the service role of the liberal arts than it is to convince faculty of the benefits of streamlined curriculums.
In the short term, a budget model that rewards student credit hours means more tuition flows to the liberal arts and sciences to cover classes for other colleges. But there’s a downside. If units are being rewarded for credit hours, there may be little incentive to recruit and retain their own dwindling cohorts of majors.
The worst possible world for a liberal arts and sciences department is to provide general education for other colleges while increasing curriculums for its own majors. Not only will little attention likely be paid to recruitment and retention, but resources will be stretched to the limit to advance majors in degree programs. The result can deteriorate to five- and six-year graduation rates, mammoth gen-ed classes, and increasingly smaller major classes — some of which are canceled due to low enrollment, further delaying graduation for majors.
That scenario can spell soaring student debt, workload inequities for continuing professors and low adjunct pay for temporary employees.
Every department in every college should pay attention to recruitment and retention. Some programs have an added responsibility because their majors may find it difficult to secure employment or do so at low starting salaries, insufficient to pay off typical debt.
That’s the perception these days of journalism schools like mine — and the reason we have stepped up efforts to recruit and retain as many students as possible.
For the past several years, we saw the number of our majors remain steady but discovered a trend of declining levels of pre-majors. We looked into that immediately and found that in part our requiring a rigorous English usage test had something to do with that in an age of texting. We also learned that admissions had been sending some of our possible recruits to communication studies. We addressed those problems and did more.
And to our surprise, we not only have been able to increase enrollment, we had a record year, with 131 incoming students majoring in journalism and advertising. That was an increase of 19 percent in journalism and 52 percent in advertising over the previous year, securing the highest total incoming class in the largest college at Iowa State University.
Here are some of our best practices, easily adapted to any discipline:
3. We sent regular e-mail blasts to prospective students, keeping them informed about student awards, financial aid, media organizations and other news of interest.
4. We created the Greenlee School Ambassador program, training and assigning our top majors to meet with prospective students and their families.
5. Our advisory council created a PowerPoint about successful journalists and advertisers from our school, which we show to all pre-majors.
6. As director, I took over our two orientation classes to help with retention efforts, letting students know how important they are to our program and helping them design four-year undergraduate plans of study to defray student debt and graduate on time.
7. We hosted ice cream socials to welcome new students to the program and give them the opportunity to interact with faculty, staff and student organizations.
8. We focused on recruitment and retention during our signature events such as our nationally recognized First Amendment Day, inviting busloads of prospective students to our celebrations.
9. We made student scholarships and internships a priority, raising more than $1 million in academic year 2011-12 in direct funding, bequests and apprenticeships with high-visibility media companies like Meredith Corporation and the Scripps Foundation.
10. We also are designing a transparency page, with vital statistics about average student loans and debt for our majors as well as updated graduation and placement rates, among other assessment data essential for students and their parents to be prudent consumers of higher education.
Perhaps our best recruitment tools are the enthusiasm of our students and alumni. Recently I polled my ethics class about their journalistic passion and recruitment recommendations. You can view their responses on my class blog. We are in the process of using this in the current academic year to recruit high school students interested in media and technology.
Alumni also have an active role not only in our school but also in our institution. For instance, CNN anchor Christine Romans was enlisted to make this video.
Phil Caffrey, our director of admissions operations and policy, used my name as an example in the video to showcase a new initiative that involves sending a “Congratulations, you’re admitted!” email to each undergraduate applicant approved for admission.
A similar video in the applicant’s name is sent a day or two after she or he submits an online application for admission.
“We asked Christine Romans for help with this project and she really came through!” Caffrey said. “She and her colleagues at CNN volunteered their time and resources to shoot their portion of the video, and they did an incredible job.
“The video is getting rave reviews from our admitted students and their parents. In fact, a very large number of the admitted students are posting the video on Facebook for their friends and relatives to see.” He added, “This project would never have happened without Christine’s help!”
And success with our recruitment and retention efforts would never have happened without our focusing on the new R&R with the same intensity that we give to research, teaching and service.
You can do the same.
Michael Bugeja is director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University.