Originally appeared in Crain’s Detroit Business, Feb. 3, 2013
Higher education institutions always are under pressure to attract students. This is why they advertise, invest in their campuses, run popular sports programs and launch fundraising campaigns.
For Michigan schools, there is an added pressure. The state’s K-12 enrollment count has fallen 11 percent since 2002, reducing the pool of students from which colleges and universities traditionally draw their enrollees.
Aware of the trend, colleges and universities are under pressure to offset the diminished pool of potential students coming out of high school, said Michael Boulus, executive director of the Lansing-based Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.
“We know we’ve had a declining K-12 population” for some time, Boulus said.
That means universities have to be more competitive as they go after the same students, Boulus said.
Universities are stepping up recruiting at high schools and investing to make their campuses more attractive. They also are putting more effort into getting students other than those coming out of high school, such as those at community colleges or in later stages of their careers.
The need for education isn’t slowing down, so schools can’t either, said Ahmad Ezzeddine, vice president of educational outreach and international programs at Wayne State University.
“We know the number of high school graduates is declining because of population trends. It’s something we’re certainly cognizant of, (but) we don’t want to focus just on the decline. We still have a very large part of the population that still needs advanced degrees” as well as people who are changing careers or trying to meet new education requirements for their jobs.
“There is enough capacity for us to stay busy,” Ezzeddine said. “We have to look at it systematically, not just one portion of the economy.”
Ezzeddine said there are mismatches between the skills businesses need and what schools are providing. Engineers are in high demand nationally, so Wayne State has started working more closely with businesses such as Quicken Loans to fill gaps and is training 260 students in advanced energy storage through a Department of Labor grant, he said. To address a growing shortage of people who know how to work on mainframes, Compuware last year sent employees to train 60 WSU computer science students in mainframe software development.
Ties with community colleges
Wayne State, like many state universities, has stepped up relations with community colleges to make up the difference in the decline in K-12 enrollment.
Wayne State has new “reverse transfer” agreements with Henry Ford Community College, Macomb Community College and Oakland Community College, and is in talks with several more, Ezzeddine said.
These agreements allow students to continue earning credits toward an associate’s degree at a community college even after transferring to a university to work toward a bachelor’s degree. If the student drops out of the university, the student can still get an associate’s if enough university credits were taken, or the student can work toward earning both an associate’s and a bachelor’s in related areas.
“Most of our students accumulate credits and transfer without earning their associate’s degree,” said Marty Heator, associate dean of enrollment management at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, which signed a reverse transfer agreement with the University of Michigan-Dearborn last June. “If they can apply our credits toward a university bachelor’s degree, there’s no reason why they can’t apply university credit toward our degree.”
Michigan in 2011 passed Public Act 62 that directed schools to put reverse transfer agreements in place. All 15 state universities and all 28 community colleges in Michigan have agreed to work toward these agreements, said Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.
As of mid-January, 51 reverse transfer agreements had been signed, said Chris Baldwin, executive director of the association’s Michigan Center for Student Success.
Eastern Michigan University had a record number of incoming undergraduates last fall, with 5,076 new students, 41 percent of whom were transfer students. The 5,076 includes first-time freshmen and students pursuing a second degree. Total enrollment was 23,502.
EMU has 122 articulation agreements by academic program with community colleges in Michigan, Ohio and Canada, and announced reverse transfer agreements with Monroe County Community College and Washtenaw Community College last year, said Walter Kraft, vice president for communications.
“We’ve always had a significant transfer population and commuter students,” Kraft said. “These have grown in recent years considerably.”
Focus on campus life
There’s also more pressure to invest in campuses.
Since 2009, EMU has invested nearly $23 million in residence hall improvements. This past fall, the school saw an increase of 19 percent in students living in residence halls and apartments.
Other schools are investing to give students a more traditional campus experience.
The $30 million Union at Dearborn project under way at the University of Michigan-Dearborn is transforming a former Ford Motor Co. diagnostic center into a student apartment complex. Bloomfield Hills-based Urban Campus Communities LLC is constructing the building and will own it, and the school will be able to highlight it in its marketing and hold events and student life programs in it, Henderson said.
“We are the last of 15 public universities in Michigan that doesn’t have any student housing available,” said Stanley Henderson, vice chancellor for enrollment management and student life.
The Union’s first phase, to be finished by August, will hold 504 residents, and a second phase, to be completed a year or two later, will have another 300.
“It’s very much part of our strategy as we look at the demographics, the declining high school population,” Henderson said.
Residential housing will give students a more traditional college experience and allow the school to go after new pools of students in areas beyond metro Detroit, such as St. Clair County and the I-96 corridor toward Lansing, he said. The school, which now has about 9,000 students, estimates that the addition of housing will attract 1,000 students over five years who otherwise would not consider attending UM-Dearborn.
“There’s a large number of students graduating high school who would never consider UM-Dearborn because there’s no housing available. … It gives us incredible flexibility amid declining high school student numbers,” Henderson said.
Schools are investing more in their student housing and campus life experiences, Boulus said, with residential units looking more like apartments and less like dorms.
“You don’t just have two bunk beds stacked on top of each other,” he said.
Oakland University in Rochester Hills plans to open a $30 million, 550-student housing center in the fall of 2014. Its total enrollment grew 1.86 percent to 19,740 this past fall from 19,379 the year before, according to the Presidents Council.
“Over the past few years, we’ve had more students than we’ve had room,” said Eleanor Reynolds, assistant vice president and director of undergraduate admissions.
Oakland sends alumni to elementary schools and middle schools in Oakland and Macomb counties and works directly with counselors at high schools as part of its recruiting efforts, Reynolds said.
The school signed a reverse transfer agreement with Macomb Community College last year and has shifted its marketing to focus more on digital media, advertising on outlets such as the Internet radio site Pandora.com. UM-Dearborn also has shifted to more digital marketing, Henderson said.
The private Lawrence Technological University will break ground on a new residence hall this spring, adding a capacity of 200 students to the school’s current on-campus population of 600. The school also is working with a nearby apartment building to house nearly 100 students.
Lawrence Tech has beefed up its out-of-state recruiting efforts, hiring regional recruiters in states such as New York, New Jersey, Minnesota and Ohio. That led to a 3 percent increase in out-of-state students this school year, said Assistant Provost Lisa Kujawa. It also has worked with Automation Alley to train and place 75 automotive engineers for jobs in the defense industry.
But a larger boost came from the addition of athletics. Lawrence Tech joined the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, an association geared for small athletic programs, in 2011 after not being part of a formal national athletics program since the 1950s, Kujawa said. The school now has nine sports programs and plans to add more.
The school’s number of “FITIAC” students — First Time In Any College — jumped nearly 50 percent this school year, and Kujawa said the addition of athletics played a huge role in that as more students want a more traditional campus lifestyle. The move brought in 135 student athletes and was a factor for others who want a team to cheer.
“This is the largest incumbent freshman class in six years,” Kujawa said.
The overall undergraduate population was up 6 percent at 3,245, and retention rates have improved, she said.
Despite all that colleges are doing to nab students, it looks like pressure to do more will only get more intense. Estimates from the state budget office show the number of K-12 pupils in the state will keep falling for three years.