Murray State President Forms Enrollment Commission to Counteract Decline

May 29, 2018

Credit Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Murray State University President Bob Davies is implementing a commission to conduct a deep analysis this summer of the university’s enrollment strategies and policies. MSU’s Board of Regents discussed enrollment trends and projections in a special meeting on Tuesday.

President’s Commission on Strategic Enrollment Management

Provost Mark Arant and Vice President for Student Affairs Don Robertson will co-chair the commission that will include deans, department chairs and others in the enrollment office.

Their first task is an analysis of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) in the enrollment admissions process. Areas include visibility, yield, communication, brand, academic partnerships, staffing, resources and competition. University officials offered in the meeting summaries of challenges and opportunities in their respective areas.

Davies said the commission will address policies, review admission standards and propose any changes that may be necessary, consider any changes to the merit-based award system as well as tuition pricing and other practices and tactics.

The analysis will enable the new vice president of enrollment management to have a platform to build upon, Davies said. A search is underway for a new associate vice president of enrollment management. Current AVP Fred Dietz is leaving Murray State for a similar position at Midwestern State University in Texas. Davies said there is a ‘broad pool’ of applicants from across the country seeking the position. Finalists are expected to visit campus by late June or early July for an early August start.

More ‘Aggressive’ in the 18 County Region

Davies and other university officials stressed bolstering efforts in the 18-county region surrounding Murray State. Specifically, Davies wants the university to lead a more concerted effort targeting potential students in the region’s population centers: McCracken, Henderson, Hopkins and Christian counties and also increase market share in the rural counties of Ballard, Crittenden and Livingston. He and others noted a “gentlemen’s agreement” with community colleges in the area with regard to pursuing certain students. While the university will continue collaborative efforts with community colleges (such as the new ‘Accelerate U’ partnership with WKCTC), Davies said he wants to emphasize differentiation between a community college and a four-year institution and to focus on students ready for the latter.

Other efforts discussed in the meeting include a soon-to-be-launched recruitment website, a focus on low-income and underrepresented students, partnerships with universities in China and increasing online learning opportunities.

Enrollment Numbers and Projections

In looking at enrollment trends over the past 15 years, Davies said the average total enrollment was 10,407. This past academic year was 10,017, Davies said.

Enrollment peaked at 11,207 in 2014, the only time MSU was above 11,000. He noted this was at the end of the recession and fueled by 200 transfer students from the nearby Mid-Continent University (that went bankrupt) and at the peak of international enrollment (at 887) and peak undergraduate students (at 9,444).

The undergraduate enrollment average over the past 15 years is 8,638. This past year, that number was 8,636, according to Davies.

The graduate enrollment average over the past 15 years is 1,769. This past year, that number was 1,381, he said. Davies and others in the meeting expressed a need to enhance online offerings to increase graduate program competitiveness.

The university is also no longer offering a free class that provided wellness center access to faculty and staff. This course didn't add revenue but inflated enrollment numbers by about 250. Davies said eliminating this (due to insurance changes) will impact the enrollment headcount.

"Over the last four years, we've been talking about the goal of having 1,600 freshmen. The real goal is to have between 1,500 and 1,600 as our freshmen class to have a stability effect so that we would have much more predictability among our freshmen class," Davies said. The number of first-time freshmen this past year was 1,443, he said.

The university is projecting next academic year 1,500 freshmen, 600 first time transfer students and 436 new graduate students.

Due to the decline in freshmen classes over the past few years, 200 fewer students will be retained from the previous year - thus leading to a slight decline in the overall undergraduate student population (of 62). Likewise, retention rates among graduates are projected to drop by 162 and a slight overall student graduate population decline (of 56).

Vice President for Finance and Administration Jackie Dudley said the financial impact of the projections includes an undergraduate discount rate of 42% and a graduate discount rate of 15% to calculate net tuition. The projections presented in the meeting, she said, are one scenario of many and are meant to reflect a "realistic" model of what could happen rather than 'the best' or 'the worst.'

"In using our fiscal year 19 rates... calculating gross tuition and fees, we would estimate we would be down $900,000. After we apply the discounts, we estimate with this scenario $627,000 down," Dudley said. She added that the university has $2 million in a contingency that would allow for some leeway in changes to enrollment or other issues. In each of the enrollment scenarios, the money needed falls within the contingency amount. "So I want to make sure that's clear that the contingency if these come to fruition, would be adequate to cover any enrollment challenges that we have." She added that if the university is to dip into the contingency, then they would have to make a commitment to restore that contingency on a continuing basis.

Murray State University is not alone in facing a trend in declining enrollment. The latest data from the The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows enrollment is down across the nation for the sixth straight year. The drop is, in part, due to the low unemployment rate. International students are also on a declining trend due to reductions in foreign government spending, increasing international competition and a perception of unwelcomeness in the United States.

What’s Next

The Murray State University Board of Regents meets again to approve the budget on June 8.

Arant said the commission’s SWOT findings may come up for discussion in the August retreat and/or board meeting.