This archived article was written by: Scott Froehlich
Every college needs a steady growth in their enrollment. A healthy number of incoming students means more funds for the college, more opportunity for the curriculum to grow and increases the demand for improved or expanded programs within the school. Thriving colleges, especially those in small towns like Price, attract people to seek a higher education and creates a sense of community between the college and the residents of the town. Utah State University Eastern embodies this relationship and the school has been a cornerstone of Price for 80 years.
Unfortunately, the enrollment numbers for the college haven’t been as vibrant as the town’s love for it would suggest. In the years since the College of Eastern Utah merged with Utah State University, enrollment has been on the decline and dropped by about 26 percent from 2010-17.
While these numbers may raise a red flag for some, Greg Dart, vice chancellor of enrollment management and student affairs asserted that they don’t tell the whole story. First, Dart suggested that the enrollment figures during the first year of the merger aren’t reliable enough to measure an accurate growth.
“The more and more we find out about it, the more and more that is a statistical anomaly. These numbers don’t necessarily tell us the real picture,” Dart said. It was discovered that there were occasions where students were counted twice since they were students of USU prior to the merger, ultimately rendering the enrollment figures incomplete.
When looking at the enrollment statistics starting in 2012 and leading up to 2017, Dart noted that the number of incoming students in the fall had been on the decline.
However, the figures beneath the surface paint the college’s success in a more positive light. Retention-wise, USUE’s percentage of students continuing their studies from the fall to spring, and to spring to fall, has remained relatively consistent. With an average of 80 percent of students going from fall to spring, and 66 percent continuing on to the next fall, the college has done a successful job of making students want to stick around.
An even more encouraging outlook is that of students graduating with either an associate degree or seeking a bachelor’s degree. In the last five years, the rate of students graduating with an associate went from 138 to 228, an improvement of 165 percent. During that same period, the number of bachelor-seeking students rose from 148 to 237, a 60 percent spike. “We are graduating more students at a faster clip than we ever have before,” Dart said.
The problem, however, has been finding a way to offset these departing students by bringing in more freshmen. “If we are going to have the same number of students [graduating] that we’ve had year after year, we have to bring more students in because we are being more successful completing them,” Dart said. “We have not seen the growth in incoming, entering students that we need to have to have long term success.”
Some of the other consequences that occur as a result of lagging enrollment have the potential to affect faculty and students. Thankfully there haven’t been any cuts to jobs or departments, but there has been a stagnate growth within the halls of the school.
“Without growth, we also have not been able to grow programs and add new programs the way that we want to,” Dart said. “The more students that we have here, the more dollars are available to run programs and such.”
So, what’s the solution?
Obviously, the college just can’t will the enrollment figures to get better, but there have been some changes made in an effort to jumpstart the process. One of the changes has been USUE’s approach to how they are recruiting.
Recently, all USU recruiters visited both the Price and Blanding campuses to “understand a little bit better what our campuses mean within the system.” This exercise in “soul searching” involved students, faculty and staff sharing what it is that makes the school special. “As they [recruiters] are out sharing the information, it helps students to really get the picture of who might be a good student here,” Dart says.
This method already produced results and the number of potential students has increased. Dart reflected on this success: “This year we have upped scholarship awarding by more than 300 percent… that is because we have a more refined message.” He hopes that similar strategies will show “how successful are we at bringing students from the Wasatch Front or from out of state, to enroll here.
Another wrinkle that could help with USUE’s success in enrollment is the recent decision to have the USU Eastern campus assimilate with the Logan campus’s Aggie identity.
Dart sees the potential to utilize this change and use it to benefit the Price campus. “I think the strength of the Utah State brand is something that we can capitalize on in our recruitment efforts,” he said. This begs the question, however, of whether or not the current identity will be washed away in the process. Dart addressed this fear and showed a commitment to retaining the tradition that makes the Price campus so unique. “We cannot go away from what makes this place a special place,” he said.
He pointed out that the campus is one of only three schools that are “full-service” campuses and that the size of the school adds an element of intimacy. “I would put our faculty up against any faculty in the nation and they are going to get a different experience…here than they would anywhere else. Wouldn’t have faculty connection that you have here if you were in Logan,” Dart said. “Can we give that experience but tie it to a strong brand? My answer is yes, and that is where we will find success.”