The Contemporary Enrollment Model for Liberal Arts Colleges

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Dr. Marylouise Fennell,?Principal

Dr. Scott D. Miller,?President
Virginia Wesleyan University

For several decades, we?ve written extensively about business models for liberal arts colleges.? A private college with an endowment of under $100 million should have a full-time enrollment of at least 1,100. ?This number provides ?critical mass? for campus climate, student life, and budgetary operations without compromising the small college atmosphere.

In recent years, we?ve gone a step further ? in addition to a core enrollment of at least 1,100 students, other programs should be added: graduate, special session, early enrollment, and online.? With national financial rating organizations predicting doom and gloom for many institutions, this model is imperative to the long-term strength and solvency of many institutions.

Enrollment management remains the single most vital area of any college or university with a tuition-driven budget. Of the more than 1,500 private colleges in the United States, approximately 30 percent have enrollments under 1,000.? As institutions revise their marketing strategies, develop retention programs, and upgrade campus facilities, parents and students remain in the consumer driver?s seat.

A winning enrollment strategy starts at the top with a president fully committed to the comprehensive enrollment model and process. ?In these times, it?s too easy for enrollment issues to be placed on the back burner as fundraising consumes presidential time and energy. ?It is essential that the president remain hands-on in both areas.

The president must take the lead in setting financial aid priorities.? We hear many stories of presidents getting into trouble over runaway financial-aid budgets. ??Buying? students with steep discounts is a recipe for financial ruin. Contrary to popular opinion, it is possible to attract and retain students, while also improving selectivity, access, and affordability. ?It?s all in the planning.

Scott?s transformational story as President of Wesley College in Delaware was extensively profiled in ?Small College Guide:? Weathering Turbulent Times? (Michael K. Townsley/NACUBO) and ?The Entrepreneurial College President? (James L. Fisher & James V. Koch/ACE).

His story ? and several others ? chronicle effective models that support our key recommendations:

Full-time Traditional Enrollment

This is the budget driver of any small liberal arts college. Our colleague Jeffrey Docking, President of Adrian College in Michigan, has authored a particularly useful book entitled ?Crisis in Higher Education: ?A Plan to Save Small Liberal Arts Colleges in America? that outlines an effective model of growing full-time enrollment.? He recommends leveraging intercollegiate athletics and co-curricular events.? Written to facilitate replication and generalization of Adrian College’s tremendous enrollment growth and retention success since 2005, his book directly addresses the economic competitiveness of small four-year institutions of higher education, and presents an evidence-based solution to the enrollment and economic crises faced by many small liberal arts colleges throughout the country.

Our colleague John Dysart, President of The Dysart Group of Charlotte, North Carolina takes it a step further.? Develop the comprehensive model, he says, but utilize a data-based process:? Data-Based Decision-Making in Recruitment, Data-Based Decision-Making in Financial Aid Award Policies, Data-Based Decision-Making for Retention.

Graduate Programs

With rapid growth in size, stature, and delivery systems, undergraduate degrees are now the minimal expectation for educational attainment.? Many institutions have accelerated their marketing of the next level of degree completion?master?s programs, which are often packaged as an extension of the four-year degree.

January Term, May Term, Summer Session

Special sessions are important to the comprehensive model. ??They improve retention and cohort graduation rates while generating needed revenues.? Special sessions also enrich the curricular offerings with unusual or special-topic courses.

Early Enrollment Programs

Dual-credit programs and Advanced Scholars Programs for motivated high school students are popular.? It?s not unusual now to have students apply to enroll in college with 30 to 60 hours of college credit.? For private campuses, these programs can also provide important contact with high school instructors who influence students? college choices.

Online Programs

Small private colleges should develop hybrid classes and online programs.? Liberal arts colleges, for the most part, aren?t trying to be the University of Phoenix, but current students would benefit from developing technology proficiency in this area. ?Cohort graduation rates increase with these offerings in non-peak periods, and adult learners benefit significantly, too.

In conclusion, summer months are a critical period for colleges as they set plans and goals for the coming year. Many small colleges have not met their enrollment goals in recent years.? By following our suggested guidelines, your campus can minimize its chances of being among them.


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Dr. Scott D. Miller is President of Virginia Wesleyan University, Virginia Beach, VA. ?Previously, he was President of Bethany College, Wesley College, and Lincoln Memorial University. ?He is Chair of the Board of Directors of Academic Search, Inc.

Dr. Marylouise Fennell, RSM, a former president of Carlow University, is senior counsel for the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) and principal of Hyatt Fennell, a higher education search firm.

They have collaborated on 14 books, including ?President to President: Views on Technology in Higher Education? (Volumes I to III) and ?Presidential Perspectives? (Volumes I to X) They edit the popular higher education thought series ?President to President? (– Sodexo).?

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