Murray State Regents Discuss New Strategies To Reverse Enrollment Decline

Aug 31, 2018

Update: This story has been updated to include information from the Friday meeting. A section has been added to the bottom.

“We’ve got to try to do some things differently. Because what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working as well as they should have," Murray State University interim President Bob Jackson said Thursday, kicking off the annual Board of Regents retreat in Wrather Auditorium.

Jackson is now in his third week in the position of interim president following the departure of former president Bob Davies earlier this month. In the June board meeting, Davies was charged with turning around the trend in declining enrollment. Jackson has taken up that charge and stressed the priority of "moving the needle" on enrollment.

A chart projected on the screen above the board at the beginning of the meeting painted a stark picture of Murray State's enrollment situation and was central to retreat discussions involving recruitment, enrollment and marketing strategies. "So goes enrollment, so goes our budget," Jackson said.

Murray State University's Board of Regents held their annual retreat in Wrather Auditorium on Thursday.
Credit Matt Markgraf / WKMS

The chart shows fall headcount enrollment trends at MSU dating back to 2002. Jackson said the chart reflects “full time, part time - a true headcount.” Notably, the chart shows a steady decline in enrollment over the past four years, preceded by a period of growth after a dip during the "Great Recession." The chart also includes goals for the next two years: 10,000 in Fall 2019 and 10,500 in Fall 2020. (This chart shows numbers going back a few years further.)

While final enrollment numbers for Fall 2018 won’t be available until October, Jackson estimated the number will be between 9,500 and 9,600.

To Murray State's "energy" and focus on "rolling up our sleeves," Jackson said there are opportunities to turn the numbers around, in trying to tell 'the Murray State story' differently. He reiterated many aspects from a recent presentation at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Murray with regard to bolstering efforts in the 18-county service region, counties east of the region and surrounding metro areas.

Vice President of Student Affairs Don Robertson led a presentation of a draft of a SWOT analysis from the President's Commission on Strategic Enrollment Management and a draft plan of focus areas and enrollment strategies. Robertson said from the analysis, the commission looked at immediate action steps, one year out and three years out. A final plan is expected to be presented at the October board meeting.

Some areas of immediate impact, Robertson said, include recreating the Road Scholars program, RaiseMe Scholars program, Accelerate U!, increasing competitiveness in Illinois, hiring an online program manager, having a greater presence in middle schools, reviewing the campus visit experience, increasing recruitment efforts at Ft. Campbell and in other locations in the surrounding region and bolstering marketing and media-related recruitment.

Murray State Interim President Bob Jackson and Board Chair Susan Guess.
Credit Matt Markgraf / WKMS

$750K For "Enhanced Marketing Efforts"

A proposal for board action at the Friday meeting involves designating $750,000 for "Enhanced Marketing Efforts for FY 2018-19." The money is a repurposing of leftover funds from a software changeover 10 years ago, according to Jackson. He said the investment is for enhancing branding and advertising through deploying the services of a specialized firm. Of that total amount, some $150,000 is an estimate for the personal services contract. The remaining $600,000 would be allocated as needed for the project to be successful.

"I think we're to a point in our history where we've got to do more in those areas. Whether it means cable ads, network, social media platforms, we've got to do more work in those areas to enhance our recruiting and enrollment numbers," Jackson said and noted peers outspending Murray State on this front.

Jackson said internal staffing has been fine, but outside advice could be beneficial. "Someone coming in from the outside is a good thing." The board and university officials discussed that various university entities often do their own marketing. Jackson suggested the university could stand to benefit from more collaboration.

"We have to make sure our message is consistent and clear. And, I don't want to cast shadows from the past, but maybe we haven't done that as well as we could have in regard to working together and collaboration," he said. "What we've been doing, we either haven't had enough of or haven't had it focused enough and that's the piece I think we've got to bring together."

Referencing the chart depicting enrollment trends, Jackson said, "We've had a tough four years. I think we need to look at how much we're spending in certain areas in order to reverse that. We can't continue that. We can't sit here next year and be talking about less than 9,500."

Friday Update: 

The board on Friday unanimously approved injecting $750,000 into enhanced marketing efforts, which includes hiring an outside firm. On Thursday, Dudley said the contracting process is poised to move forward and be finalized over the next couple of months.

On Friday, specific preliminary enrollment numbers were shared. As of August 24, the Fall 18 enrollment total is 9,441. This number is likely to change and won't be finalized until October.

Credit Matt Markgraf / WKMS

A lengthy discussion on enrollment touched on initiatives mentioned in the Thursday retreat and detailed numerous other efforts underway, including a "You Are Welcome" campaign to boost international enrollment. 

Vice President Dudley was asked to share preliminary budget numbers relative to Fall 18 enrollment. She said, "looking at the net tuition... estimating between maybe $3 - $5 million for the year that we could possibly be short." She made it clear that this was a "very early estimate" and noted that there is $2 million built into the budget as a contingency. She also added that Spring could bounce back.

Board Chair Susan Guess said change brings "great opportunity" and "new energy" will move the university forward in a positive way.  “We have every confidence that a year from now we will have a lot to celebrate,” she said.