By Emily Rosenberg
The University is preparing a five-year strategic enrollment management plan which begins this academic year.
As part of this process, the administration will conduct several studies and implement changes in staffing and marketing, with the purpose of admitting, enrolling, and retaining more students and to reverse an ongoing trend of declining enrollment.
Undergraduate enrollment at the University has declined approximately 36% since the Fall 2014 Semester when undergraduate enrollment was approximately 4,609. Since then, the University has experienced a consistent undergraduate enrollment decline.
In Fall 2022, undergraduate enrollment was approximately 2,970.
In Fall 2023, the overall undergraduate enrollment was 2816 students. This includes 1817 continuing matriculated students, 499 first-year first-time students, 259 transfer students, and 261 non-matriculated students.
However, while overall enrollment at the University decreased by 6% in the past year, first-year enrollment increased by 2% from the previous year. The University enrolled 736 new students for the Fall 2023 Semester.
On Monday, Oct. 16, the administration hosted an enrollment management plan update meeting to share progress made in the enrollment strategy and progress made in enrollment with faculty and staff.
This was also one of the major topics of President Nancy Niemi’s State of the University address, which focused on the institution's “vital signs” and was delivered via video later that evening.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kristen Porter-Utley has been hosting virtual “listening sessions” for faculty who are not directly involved with strategic enrollment planning to keep them updated. During these sessions, faculty have the opportunity to share ideas and feedback.
During the strategic enrollment update on monday, Niemi said, “Of the 4,000-plus institutions of higher education in the United States, all but about 100 of us need to worry about enrollment. We definitely, like most everybody else, do. … Most institutions have had to compete much, much harder for students.”
At the meeting, Iris Godes, dean of strategic enrollment management and chief enrollment officer, said the strategic enrollment management team is very purposely made up of members of the executive staff: Executive Vice President Dale Hamel, Vice President of Academic Enhancement Lorretta Holloway, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego, Porter-Utley, and herself.
Holloway will lead a retention team and a persistence and communications team; Godes will lead a data team and an admissions recruitment team; and Porter-Utley will lead an academic programs team.
She said the members of the teams have not been decided yet, but they are intended to be small for productivity, adding people not directly involved will be able to participate by communicating with a team leader.
She added her intention is to “knock down the silos” at the University and for communication to be better.
Last academic year, Niemi announced the restructuring of the Enrollment and Student Development division and creation of the Academic Enhancement division to address enrollment management.
Niemi said this was one of the most critical first steps to develop an enrollment strategy because the division of Enrollment and Student Development was too large and when a division is that broad, the vice president cannot provide sufficient support to any of its departments.
As part of this restructuring, the University also created a new dean of enrollment and chief enrollment officer position to oversee the enrollment management plan and admissions office.
In May 2023, Godes was appointed chief enrollment officer and dean of enrollment.
“So that's one of the biggest and probably the single most important thing that restructuring accomplished was that now, we have one division whose sole responsibility is enrollment management, admissions, marketing, financial aid, all the things that matter when you're trying to recruit students and invite them into a university,” Niemi said.
In addition, an associate director of enrollment communications, Karen Lembo, will begin on Oct. 30. She will work under the direction of Communications Director Dan Magazu and her sole focus will be to manage admissions and enrollment communications, working closely with Godes.
Lembo will also help build out the University’s social media presence.
At the strategic enrollment update, Godes said the enrollment strategy is not just about recruitment but about retention and persistence - admitting students, keeping them at the University until graduation, and then “bragging” about their success as alumni.
Niemi said the restructuring of the administration and the enrollment plan will allow the University to focus deeply on this mission.
She said there is also a difference between the strategic enrollment management plan and a University’s strategic five-year plan. However, they are closely related.
The University’s strategic enrollment plan will result in a complete rebranding of its marketing strategy. The University has updated its logo and will unveil a new website, designed by the marketing group Primacy, in April 2024.
Godes said Primacy held a focus group including faculty, students, and one prospective student, allowing them to interact with a few pages of the new website and provide feedback.
“So the website is your number-one marketing piece, and our website is going to be so dramatically different you won't recognize the school. So, we're very excited about what's coming,” she said.
Godes said what she identified as not working in the previous enrollment and admissions strategy is that the University was not telling its story well.
She added during her time at the University, she has learned that students have inspiring stories to share that have for some reason not been communicated. For example, she referenced the students-in-the-spotlights, who are students who share their accomplishments at the Board of Trustees meetings during the President’s report.
She said these are the kinds of stories that must be communicated more strategically to prospective students, and that approach has been lacking in previous years.
Godes said a goal of hers is to create a library of these student stories that can be shared with prospective students and which admissions counselors and faculty will have at their disposal to shape recruitment materials.
She said the goal is also to begin a strategic set of communications with prospective students by putting them in contact with an admissions counselor as early as a high school student’s sophomore year.
Godes said as soon as prospective students enter the system, admissions counselors will begin a two-way communication to develop a relationship with the student and truly understand their needs.
Ways that students come into the University’s system as a prospective student could be by coming for a campus visit or taking a standardized test through the college board. FSU also partners with certain college search databases such as Niche.
Godes said the college board is the biggest database for gathering names of prospective students, but there have been fewer names in recent years because Framingham State is a test-optional school.
She added the communications from admissions in previous years seemed to be “task oriented” and transactional - for example, an admissions counselor reaching out to a student for their transcript or financial aid documents.
Godes said that through this consistent line of communication between admissions counselors and prospective students, counselors should be able to discuss some of the opportunities FSU provides as well as ask candidates what they are interested in to tailor their experiences.
She added high school guidance counselors have a big caseload, making it sometimes difficult to help first-generation students to receive the assistance and information in a college search that may be needed, which an admissions counselor can then also help with.
She said she would love for some of this communication to come from current students, adding the inspirational student stories would shape these interactions. For example, if an admissions counselor learned a student was interested in the biology program, they could send them a letter written by a successful biology student currently in the program.
Furthermore, prospective students would be put in contact with faculty in their program of interest.
She said she believes developing this direct line of communication is very important to developing prospective students’ interest in the University.
Godes said from the perspective of candidates, “They are not just sending me everything under the sun that I’m not interested in. They know who I am and they’re sending me information that is very relevant to me.” .
She said parts of this communication plan have been implemented and it will continue to be rolled out over the next few months. Even though she would like to do it “all at once,” she said it takes time.
In addition, the admissions office will be receiving new print material to distribute to prospective students in the system. She said in the past, the University did not distribute brochures or flip books on a “grand scale,” adding that a majority of the print materials that were sent out were postcards, which research has shown to be least effective in gaining student interest.
She said in previous years, the admissions office would also send out a lot of digital ads through email, which are ineffective with high school students if they do not read their email.
She said ideally, the admissions office will use a balance of digital, print, and email materials to convey FSU’s story.
The admissions office will be developing a strategy for all these forms of communication.
For example, she asked how can FSU best utilize print advertisements? She used as an example that the admissions office recently placed an ad in her daughter's school playbill as she knows a good number of people attend plays at Framingham High School.
Godes said another initiative that is a top priority of hers is recruiting out-of-state students. Scholarships for out-of-state students were funded under the strategic enrollment plan in FY24. The scholarship would help out-of-state students afford tuition and fees at an in-state cost. She said this is to compete with universities on price. “So you know, if I'm from Rhode Island, well, why would I come to Framingham? I can just go to URI, right?”
She added the goal is to target students in the New England area first, although there are unique situations in which students travel across the country to attend Framingham State. She added there is also potential for digital advertising in the surrounding states and finally developing a strategy for admissions counselors to make out-of-state college visits and go to out-of-state college fairs.
She said it is too early to tell if funding for each of these initiatives over the five-year plan will be definite. If there is a valuable initiative that is proposed in year three, four or five, it might be funded.
“We will be evaluating each year,” she said.
Godes said she will know progress is being made if the University admits more students this year than the year prior and receives more applications, more campus visits, and more inquiries.
“Higher education is an extremely important thing. And the news media is saying you don't really need a degree, right? We've all heard it. So we've got to figure out how to message that so that those students who think it is not so important understand what they're missing,” she added.
She said a lot of industries are changing their job requirements to no longer require college degrees because of a lack of applicants, adding another idea the media pushes is learning a trade is more valuable than attending a liberal arts college, which isn’t necessarily true for every student. “It worries me that people are starting to choose not to go to college.”
Another initiative the admissions office has begun is a direct admissions pilot program with Framingham High School. Through this program, students are essentially being scouted by Framingham State admissions counselors and all they have to do is fill out a short application form.
Godes also addressed MassReconnect, a program that was launched in the State Legislature’s FY24 budget that provides free tuition at any community college in the state for students 25 years or older who complete the FAFSA. The program also plans to provide all new students of any age who complete the FAFSA with free access to community college starting in the Fall 2024 Semester.
Godes said she is actively considering how this new program will affect enrollment at FSU, but it is not in her proposed plan for this year.
She added as of right now, she is unsure who will take advantage of the program when it opens up to all ages in the Fall 2024 Semester and how that will affect enrollment at FSU. She said there are several reasons why students may opt not to take advantage of the MassReconnect program. For example, local, low-income students may receive adequate enough financial aid to attend Framingham State at a similar cost to attending a community college for free. “So there's still ways to make it just as affordable to come here and then you don't need to go through the transfer process.”
However, she said one way she imagines the University may lose enrollment is people seeking undergraduate degrees who would have come to Framingham State for their first two years but instead attend community colleges.
Therefore, a critical strategy would be beginning communication with prospective students as soon as they start their education at their community colleges. “To say, ‘Hey! Congratulations for being in this program. We hope you, when you finish this program, come to Framingham. And here's the pathway for you and let's keep the conversation going.”
According to Lisa Slavin, Vice President for Enrollment Management at MassBay Community College, her college saw a 17.5% increase in enrollment during the Fall 2023 Semester, which she noted was likely due both to students coming back from COVID-19 isolation as well as the implementation of the MassReconnect program.
Slavin said the admissions office hosted information sessions throughout the summer to help inform students of the new program, although they had a short amount of time to get the word out because the funding for the program was announced in August. She added they also ran digital advertisements and reached out to former students who may have dropped out due to financial reasons to encourage them to continue their education.
She said they also hired a part-time position called a MassReconnect navigator to focus on answering students’ questions about eligibility for the program.
“Providing free tuition and fees and books is huge for any student, especially many of our students, because a lot of them are working full time,” Slavin said.
In the Spring 2024 Semester, MassBay will also open a four-story building on Franklin Street in Framingham that will be home to programs in early childhood education, health sciences, and human services education with “leading-edge labs.”
The building will also host a new program offering a diagnostic medical sonography associate’s degree launching in 2025.
Provost Porter-Utley said as part of the enrollment planning process, the administration established four working groups: Academic Program portfolio, Fiscal and Financial Aid, Student Admissions, Recruitment and Marketing, and Student Success.
All four of these groups were in charge of conducting situational analysis and collecting data on their respective areas of the University’s profile and reporting back to the enrollment management team. A lot of this data was collected during the 2022-23 academic year.
One faculty member served on Marketing, two served on Student Success, and four on Academic Programs.
Some of the data collected concerned the student populations of each academic program. The working groups also identified unique programs the University offers such as Rams 101, Honors classes, and the 4+1 initiatives.
She added for some reason, departments have not been receiving data analysis on market demand or trends, which is also an area of data included in the reports. She said market demand analysis will be helpful for departments in identifying regional partners, in developing opportunities for co-ops and internships, and to help structure course and program offerings around employment opportunities and trends.
“That's all information we can use, and provide on a regular basis to help us always reconsider what it is that we're doing,” Porter-Utley said.
“Those are the kinds of conversations that can really help to enrich an existing program that's quite successful. Or they might say, ‘Wow! It looks like there's going to be a big opportunity for students in this area. … Or is it reasonable for us - does it meet our mission to offer this kind of program?’”
She added the goal is to have a packet of information available for departments by the Fall 2024 Semester. The packet of information would be a “one stop” for department chairs to assess enrollment trends, prospective students’ needs, and market demand analysis.
She added part of the analysis will be determining what adjustments will be made to academic programs to support student success, whether that be adding or subtracting courses or programs, although it is too soon to decide right now.
Porter-Utley said there is also a prospective student survey that has just been completed and is being analyzed by the working groups.
President Niemi said the Office of the President oversees the entire process and sets the priorities.
She said those priorities focus on the idea that FSU is a public regional institution. “We serve the public good. No matter what else we do - that does not and should not change.
“In terms of strategic enrollment, what is it that we need to plan to do and then do in order to best fulfill that role of serving the public good and the region,” she added. “The population of students that we serve has changed. … So, how are we strategizing our enrollment in order to serve that population?”
Niemi said marketing had no strategic plan in the past, adding this was an issue because the medium for marketing has changed drastically over the past 20 years.
She said over the course of the last year, as the University developed a marketing strategy with Primacy, the mission was making the value proposition clear.
Niemi said it is not true that the bigger the marketing budget, the more students will apply to the university. Rather, it is about applying marketing strategically and targeting the correct audiences so the money is being used in the right places.
She added the University should “not be afraid to market its biggest and boldest programs,” but that the marketing should be more specific about what students can come to FSU for.
“We need to be unapologetic about the quality and the value,” she added.
Niemi said often, students and parents of students will compare the value of a college by looking at the cost of tuition and fees. She said the University could get a lot better at communicating the value of an FSU education at a lower cost rather than just being perceived as a “cheap” option.
At the same time, the University is also putting together its 10-year NECHE accreditation report and performing a self study. Niemi said a lot of that data can then be used to assist in the strategic enrollment planning because a lot of it is applicable.
She said under the NECHE accreditation process, the University could potentially receive a “red flag” if it were to be perceived as not meeting the minimal requirements for planning and organization regarding its enrollment strategy.
Kate Caffrey, a professor in the communication, media, and performance department and president of the MSCA faculty union, said the messaging to faculty about the strategic enrollment planning has been better compared to last year, when there was not much transparency.
She said she believes the plan is moving toward a market strategy that fits the idea that students only want a degree to get a job and it is too focused on job training, which is not what a liberal arts education is necessarily for.
“If you talk to many of the faculty at Framingham State, they would say that job training at a college is not a good idea because many of the jobs that are available now will not be available in 10 years. What's more important with college education is that you learn to think critically. You learn how to solve problems. You learn how to be a good citizen. You learn how to pivot when the world changes,” she said.
Caffrey added that it is racist and classist to imply that state universities exist to train workers. “I don't think they'd say that about students at Harvard. I think they expect students at Harvard to invent things - to go on and create things. To become the leaders of the future. Why not our state college students?”
She said what the University should better convey to prospective students is the valuable faculty and student relationships that are developed at FSU. She compared the small class sizes at FSU to the class sizes of around 150 students at a larger university, saying here, she is also able to build relationships with and advise students who are not majors in her department.
SGA President Evelyn Campbell said she is going to be learning a lot about the strategic enrollment planning process as she will be serving as a student representative on the committee soon.
She said something the University could focus on to help recruit more students is increasing its social media presence, adding she sees a lot of school-wide events featured on social media pages at FSU’s sister universities.
Campbell added coming in as a student after COVID-19 isolation, she did not know a lot about FSU, but she has been able to create her own story.
She said highlighting how big of an impact students have on each other at the University would be critical to the message sent to prospective students, because this is not always the case at other schools.
“I think because of how small we are in terms of class sizes and who's involved, that you really do have an opportunity to be impacted and impact others here,” she said.