It has been a year since the University of Idaho community ensured UI was known as the state’s “flagship” university, its premier research school.And it’s been nearly 125 since the campus in Moscow was set aside as Idaho’s land-grant institution, a school predicated on access for all.
“A land-grant flagship? Those two terms actually don’t connect well. Conflict is too strong a word, but they are not always synonymous,” said Steve Neiheisel, assistant vice president of enrollment management. “There are not too many schools that have both of those responsibilities.”
The stated goal of outgoing President M. Duane Nellis for Idaho’s “flagship,” land-grant university is to grow enrollment from the 11,551 currently statewide to 16,000 students just in Moscow by 2020.
A lofty goal considering the number of students in Moscow has changed little in a decade: 10,667 at the beginning of fall 2001 and peaking at 12,894 in fall 2004.
But after the March 22 announcement that Nellis is leaving for Texas Tech, the future of the goal is unclear.
Neiheisel and others await the decisions made by recently-appointed interim president Don Burnett and the permanent selection likely to be made within the next year about direction the university takes in the future. UI Provost Doug Baker said it could be focused on continued growth, furthering the research prestige or maintaining the tenuous balance at present. A balance Baker said involves everyone on campus.
“Enrollment management is everybody’s responsibility in the institution, to recruit and retain students,” Baker said.
Several years ago, a task force under the direction of Dean of Students Bruce Pitman and Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Jeanne Christiansen assembled and identified strategies to keep students at school that are actively being implemented.
“In the last few years we’ve made a lot of adjustments, structural changes, invested in those areas (that increase enrollment),” Baker said. “The increase in fall enrollments is that fruit coming to bear.”
For Pitman and student affairs personnel, ensuring a smooth transition for freshmen into college and making sure they stick around is about answering one particular question successfully.
“What can we do that matters to students?” Pitman said. “It’s not just the first four days of barbeques We are actively communicating with students.”
One priority has been the early grade warning system that allows advisers to identify struggling students sooner and get them back on track.
Other products of the task force’s work include the campus live-on requirement, which has produced a 90 percent return rate, the Student Options Advising Retreat program for students put on probation and the new 15-credit advising measure to also keep students on the graduation path.
Part of the balancing act for university officials is to increase graduation rates and counteract fewer continuing students with more new students.
“They are conflicting goals,” Neiheisel said. “You want more enrollment, but … if they graduate it doesn’t always help enrollment.”
While graduation rates are up due in part to the reduction from 128 to 120 credits required to graduate, retention rates are down for the second spring in a row.
Another piece of the enrollment puzzle is finances. Dan Davenport, director of student financial aid services, said he focuses on getting families — especially the low-income ones in a state with one of the lowest per capita income in the country — to overcome their worries about paying for college.
“Our ability to show them acceptable ways to finance it — it varies with every person, has a huge impact on if they go on to college and where they go on to college,” Davenport said. “The challenge that we have is showing people that there is value in a college degree.”
The problem is that unlike financing a house or car, your financial aid changes every year, a problem Davenport understands and feels should be addressed nationwide.
“If we are really serious about getting more students to go to college, that’s where we go to move,” he said. “(Showing them) the financing that can help you get your product, just like we do with a car.”
The total amount of financial aid dispersed, $125 million in 2012, is up 46-percent Davenport said. Most of that increase comes in the form $75 million in loans and a little in the $25 million in scholarships.
The contraction of the Western Undergraduate Exchange has hurt that scholarship total, but Davenport said the new Discover Idaho program is working to make up for the loss.
“The concept is the same in that it’s dollars to reduce the cost of out of state tuition,” Davenport said. “The problem with WUE is that it had a very recognized name.”
Discover Idaho gives the department more flexibility to prioritize where their money goes, like giving more to certain students or going outside a certain geographic region.
The state of Idaho is also reworking how it awards scholarships, combining numerous scholarship funds into one large pot from which more money can be given to those who need it most.
“They will be geared more toward encouraging students to go to college,” Davenport said.
While every dollar helps, scholarships are more an “attractant,” Davenport said, than something that will convince a student college is a feasible option.
Another UI standard under consideration is admission.
“Our entrance scores have varied little over the last decade,” Baker said. “We are not going to reduce our entrance requirements.”
Instead, what Neiheisel advocates is potentially increasing those standards as a retention strategy.
“The easiest way to improve retention, and there is a lot of research on this, is to improve the admissions standards,” he said.
By setting the bar high, Neiheisel said the university could bolster its “flagship” reputation.
“The stronger your admission standards, the more successful your students are,” he said.
The problem for Neiheisel is that while Idaho high school graduation rate is up, those students are not necessarily college ready.
“The challenge is increasing the college going rate and the second challenge is making sure those who do graduate are college ready and meet our standards,” he said.
But he must ensure access.
“As a land-grant institution, that’s our core when you talk about raising admission’s standards,” he said.
All factors considered, the decision awaits the next permanent president, which leaves this year in limbo.
“The interim will be around for a several months and to be honest, the class of 2014 is going to get shaped in those months,” Neiheisel said.
In the meantime, the enrollment office is working on continuing to increase the number of students who apply, are admitted, and then show up next fall.
“We are targeting modest growth at all three, then that adds up,” Neiheisel said.
It adds up to 569 new applications, 259 more students admitted than at this point last year, an improvement Baker attributes to hard work campus-wide.
“I think we are on the beginning of this reinvigoration of our enrollment,” Baker said. “I think it’s going to be very effective over the next few years.”
However, what is the future of enrollment at Idaho’s flagship land-grant institution? For Neiheisel, it’s a waiting game.
“Those are our explicit goals for 2013,” Neiheisel said. “Beyond 2013, I am waiting to hear what the new president says.”
Dylan Brown can be reached at email@example.com