Since enrollment peaked at Kansas State in 2014, the university scrambled to slow the annual declines in student body population. In recent years, that’s looked like hiring administrators focused on student success and enrollment strategy as well as adjusting recruiting priorities. Now, vice provost for enrollment management Karen Goos said the pandemic slowed that progress.
“I think compromised the progress is a great way to put it,” Goos said. “We were making really good progress on some of our priorities.”
In March, Goos and others working on strategic enrollment management shifted their focus from proactive planning to a more reactive approach, emphasizing keeping people enrolled at K-State engaged from a distance and retaining students.
K-State expected to see some returns on its investment this year, but enrollment fell this semester — as the university expected with the economic crisis spurned by the pandemic — more than it has in previous years at 4.1 percent. Right now, total enrollment is at its lowest since the 1990s.
Across the whole Board of Regents system — which includes community colleges, technical colleges and state universities — enrollment in full-time equivalency fell nearly seven percent from this time last year.
“What’s important to recognize is, overall, we knew that our enrollment was going to be down,” Goos said.
The melt rate — the number of students accepted to attend K-State, but do not enroll — also went up this year. Usually, the melt rate is in the ballpark of seven percent, Goos said. This year, it was over 15 percent.
That doesn’t mean people decided not to come to K-State, Goos said. Rather, some may have pushed off going to college altogether for a few years or even made the choice to live at home while attending a community college.
These enrollment declines do not necessarily mean the strategies aren’t working. One of the key goals of the strategic enrollment management team is increasing retention across the whole K-State system and raising the four- and six-year graduation rates. K-State saw significant progress on those fronts, Goos said. In fact, the university documented its highest freshman- to sophomore-retention rates in school history despite the pandemic.
“I think our faculty and staff did a great job of reaching out and making those personal connections, making sure the students felt comfortable coming back,” Goos said.
Additionally, the number of individuals applying to the university is climbing.
“We were already seeing some progress. I think we would have realized a stronger freshmen class had the pandemic not hit,” Goos said.
Another enrollment strategy the university emphasizes is increasing the out-of-state enrollments as the population K-State historically recruited from — in-state students — continues to decrease.
Ashley Kragelund, junior in animal science, is originally from Nebraska. She came to K-State in 2018 using the Midwest Student Exchange Program that offers decreased tuition to out-of-state students from the region, like Nebraska, Illinois and Indiana.
That, combined with the added bonus of there being a well-regarded veterinary school associated with the university, brought Kragelund here.
“I decided to come to K-State after visiting because it just really felt like the right fit of all the schools that also had a vet school,” Kragelund said. “I didn’t think there were really any other incentives when I first decided on K-State.”
Starting next fall, students from Missouri could be charged in-state equivalent tuition, decreasing their education price tag by more than 60 percent.
“We knew there was going to be growth in traditional aged students in the out-of-state market,” Goos said. “If we continue to just work our in-state market then we would see continued enrollment decline no matter how well we performed.”
That’s not to say K-State ceased recruiting in-state students. In 2019, in-state students still made up nearly 70 percent of the total student body.
SETTING ‘REALISTIC’ GOALS
The primary goal of the enrollment management strategies is not to get enrollment at K-State back to what it was in 2014 — that’s not a reasonable plan, Goos said.
“I do not intend to us to get back to our highest peak. That is certainly not my goal,” Goos said. “I don’t have a plan of getting back to where we were, and I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation in the short term.”
Instead, the focus remains on making up some recent losses in total enrollment and creating a more steady year-to-year student body population size.
In the meantime, as enrollment continues to decline, Kragelund said she’s a little bit worried.
“I don’t feel like it’s affected me personally, but lower enrollments could mean that some classes wouldn’t be offered, and I think that could negatively affect other students at K-State,” she said. “It’s definitely an issue that needs to be worked on.”