FSU total enrollment declines 2%

Total enrollment for the fall 2019 semester is 5,456 students, down 2% since fall 2018, when 5,565 students were enrolled.

Of the total enrollment, 3,857 of those students are undergraduates. This number is down by 2.03% since last fall, when the University enrolled 3,937 undergraduates, according to data provided Dec. 9 by Dean of Enrollment Management Jeremy Spencer.

Fall 2019 marks the fourth year FSU has used the Common Application, an online admission application form that allows students to apply to more than 800 colleges and universities.

Spencer said that in 2016, FSU was one of the first regional public universities in the state to join the Common Application. This was done in an effort to increase enrollment and because the Common Application was viewed as “more access-oriented.”

Although freshman enrollment dropped more than 100 students from 2015 to 2016, Spencer does not attribute this to the use of the Common Application.

“The enrollment decline wasn’t because of the Common Application. … We got more exposure and the number of underrepresented students each year has gone up in our entering student population,” said Spencer.

The Common Application, which was developed and is managed by a non-profit organization, allows more students to engage with FSU who normally wouldn’t.

Before adopting the Common Application, Spencer said universities employed a “holistic review process.” This process required prospective students to submit an essay, letters of recommendation, high school grades, and SAT or ACT test scores to the colleges in which they were interested.

“The organization changed its mission statement in 2015 to be more inclusive, and to be able to welcome members who had more of a commitment to access and being able to advance higher education,” Spencer said.

“That aligned with our goals – the strategic goals of inclusive excellence – to be able to be more forward-thinking about how we can reach out to underrepresented students,” he added.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development, also defended the Common Application, saying she doesn’t believe it contributed to the enrollment decline, either.

“The problem with the Common App is that it made our yield look a bit skewed,” she said.

The Common Application boosted the number of applications the University received, and in return, increased the number of students accepted. Upon implementing the Common 

Application, FSU saw a 25.46% increase in applications from the previous year.

In a Dec. 15, 2017 article published in The Gatepost, Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said the drop in first-year class size from fall 2015 to fall 2016 was, in fact, partially due to the transition to the Common Application.

“There are some external forces and internal responses. The first time [FSU used] the Common App, we saw a significant increase in the number of applications that we received, and I don’t think we knew well which of those increases were high probability [to accept an offer of admission] and which were applications to us as a ‘safety school,’” Hamel said.

“It made the enrollment funnel more difficult to ascertain what percentage of those applications would actually turn into acceptances. … We’re getting much more applications from less committed students,” he added.

Although the University’s acceptance rate has increased by 9.43% since 2016, both Spencer and Holloway claim selectivity has not changed.

Spencer said use of the Common Application made it easier for students and families to apply to colleges because it created one centralized location for students to upload anything college-related, and it also gave them the option to include their SAT and ACT scores.

Holloway said, “Applying to college is stressful enough for a family as it is, so we don’t want to complicate and discourage them with the process.”

Sophomore Ryan Sistrand said, “The Common App is very easy. I like how I could just fill out one application for all the schools I applied to.” He also said he came here because FSU was “close and cheap.”

Senior Jacob Mixon said, “I think switching to the Common App was an important thing for the school to do. It made applying much easier.”

Sophomore Jared McShane said using the Common Application was “pretty easy,” and he didn’t encounter any difficulties while applying.

Holloway said, “Anything – from my book – that makes it easier for people to apply should be done.”

She went on to discuss the enrollment data team she put together, which focuses on enrollment research and historical analysis of retention. The team, made up of FSU faculty and staff, helps the University understand enrollment trends.

Stressing the importance of an enrollment data team composed of University faculty and staff, Holloway said, “Why pay a whole bunch of people outside when you’ve got people here that you know have your best interest in mind? They know us – they know our students.”

According to Holloway, FSU uses data compiled by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) to make projections by monitoring declining high school enrollment and demographic changes.

Although current WICHE data predicts a decline in high school graduates over time, Holloway said the number of high school graduates in Massachusetts “isn’t necessarily falling,” but for the most part, enrollment has been down at surrounding state schools since 2009.

She also said declining enrollment at “feeder schools,” or community colleges from which graduates are likely to transfer to higher-level institutions, impacts the University’s enrollment as well.

“The majority of community colleges are struggling,” Holloway said.

Shayna Eddy, associate dean and director of undergraduate admissions, said she is working closely with the assistant vice president and director of admissions from MassBay to start targeting the MetroWest area and launch a “Next Stop College Series.”

This “series” would give students tips for taking a campus tour and understanding financial aid, as well as provide extra resources to families.

Holloway also discussed another partnership with MassBay, which allows some of their students to live on FSU’s campus and gives them the “college experience,” in the hope they’ll want to transfer.

In the past, the University was able to make up for the loss of first-year students with its transfers. According to Holloway, this is more difficult to do now because of the decline in enrollment at community colleges.

“I think people are really thinking about whether or not [college] is something that’s for everyone,” she said. “Part of the reason is because it’s so expensive.”

Senior Sean Mulhall said, “I feel like classes have gotten smaller a bit.”

He chose FSU because of its location. “The location was really convenient, the classes they offered were interesting, … and it was cheap too,” Mulhall said.

Senior Josh Peck said, “Oh yeah, I’ve noticed big changes – massive! Literally like 50% [fewer students] in my classes sometimes.”

He believes this has to do with increasing tuition expenses. “If you always follow the money, it never lies,” he said.

This fall, Framingham State enrolled 776 first-year students, according to data provided Dec. 9 by Spencer.

This was an increase of nine first-year students over fall 2018.

Five-thousand nine-hundred sixty prospective freshmen submitted applications, and 4,425 of them were accepted – an acceptance rate of 74.24%. This was a 0.93% increase over fall 2018. Of the accepted applicants, 877 submitted deposits and 776 matriculated.

There were 767 students in the incoming freshman class of fall 2018. In fall 2017, there were 764. In fall 2016, there were 749. In fall 2015, there were 855. And in fall 2014, there were 808.

For fall 2019, the University received 943 transfer applications and accepted 628, resulting in a 66.6% acceptance rate, up 7.44% from the previous year. Of those accepted, 380 matriculated. This was an increase of 10 transfer students over fall 2018.

The University’s enrollment goal of 784 first-year students was not met, but the goal of 340 transfers was surpassed.

Holloway believes enrollment is declining because students are “fearful” of debt and question whether higher education is worth the investment when trades, or even two-year degrees, are lucrative.

According to the Department of Higher Education’s website, undergraduate tuition and fees at FSU for the current fiscal year total $11,100 – which is 7% of the state’s median household income.

Furthermore, the average amount accumulated in loans for students seeking bachelor’s degrees was $19,481 in 2017. Both these numbers are comparable to other state universities, including Fitchburg, Salem, and Bridgewater states.

Spencer said, “There’s a lot of things that we’re doing to respond to the competition. … Other institutions are [providing financial aid], and some institutions are quite frankly doing it better than we are because they’re more heavily resourced, they’ve been at this longer, they have a larger admissions staff, [and] they have a much more aggressive financial aid budget to be able to do things on.

“So, we’re doing the best we can leveraging the resources we have on campus,” he added.

Spencer said the University is focusing on how its financial aid formulas can better align with students’ needs. To do this, FSU is planning to take part in an external review of financial aid packaging analysis with the Education Advisory Board (EAB) – a financial aid optimization program – next fall.

The EAB looks at the University’s formulas and can help determine ways to better distribute financial aid and whether that aid is able to maintain and increase enrollment.

Eddy said she believes the EAB is a tool that will allow the University to strategically look at its applicants and financial aid data in order to make “good, focused decisions” in the future.

By being able to determine the probability of prospective students enrolling at FSU, the University will have a much better idea of where it should be focusing its money and resources, she said.

Spencer said, “Massachusetts is a higher education-rich state, so there’s lots of competition within Massachusetts to be able to understand.”

Increased competition from UMass campuses, as well as fellow state and private universities, plays a part in the enrollment trends, he said.

Competition is “stiff in the marketplace” among regional public four-year institutions, UMass campuses, and private schools outside the region because “Massachusetts and New England students are very desirable to institutions that are not based in [the region],” said Spencer.

“A lot of the private institutions are leveraging their financial aid a lot more aggressively than they have in the past,” he added.

This means although an institution may cost more than FSU, it might not be more expensive in the end because of that school’s financial aid package.

“The surrounding states are also having challenges with enrollment,” Spencer said. “We get about 96% of our students from Massachusetts, so we’re really competing from Massachusetts.”

Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Salem, Westfield, and Worcester states are viewed as FSU’s competition among the comprehensive state universities. “Every one of them has had a high-water mark and an overall decline over the decade,” said Spencer.

Both Spencer and Holloway blame a few years early in the decade for distorting how people view enrollment.

In fall 2011, 924 first-year students were enrolled at the University – an increase of more than 200 over fall 2010. In 2012, the number of first-year students dropped to 826. In 2013, there were 809 first-year students enrolled.

Fall 2012 marked the high point for transfer students with 475. Fall 2014 marked the high point for enrollment of undergraduate students with 4,609.

Since 2016, the number of first-year students enrolled has been relatively stable.

Spencer attributed the “high-water mark” to a “stark increase” in first-year and transfer students. He said the “only thing” to which he can attribute that success to is “a more aggressive recruitment strategy.

“Our primary understanding is that increase came out of the result of aggressive recruitment tactics that worked early on – tactics that weren’t employed in previous years,” he said.

“We developed more of an enrollment funnel recruitment strategy, we employed a senior search for the first time, and we had dramatic success in growing the freshman population the first year, and really, the transfer population the second year,” said Spencer in regards to fall 2011 and 2012’s increased enrollment.

He added the same year FSU saw a spike in first-year enrollment, the University purchased roughly 20,000 high school seniors’ names through the SAT and communicated “heavily” with them. “That usually isn’t successful … but it just happened to work that year. It was great,” Spencer said.

“From this particular year when we had this dramatic success, we’ve been administering, at minimum, the same strategies, but employing additional strategies – and we’re finding it increasingly difficult to be able to enroll the class which we did [in 2011],” Spencer added.

Holloway also believes the University’s enrollment numbers are “misrepresented … unless you go back and look at our enrollment over time.”

According to Holloway, enrollment statistics for the last decade are skewed because of fall 2011’s increase in first-year students, and because they’re “based on high-point versus overall [numbers].”

She pointed to fall 2009’s undergraduate enrollment of 3,847 students and compared it to fall 2019’s undergraduate enrollment of 3,857 students, citing a slight increase since then. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, we dropped from our 2014 high point,’ but if you look at our 10-year plan, we’re 10 students up.

“It just looks like you’re declining, even if everything’s the same,” She added.

According to Holloway, every student enrolled at the University adds at least $10,000 to FSU’s budget. Since total enrollment is down more than 100 students since last year, this has resulted in a monetary loss of more than $1 million from the University’s budget.

This loss generally results in smaller office budgets and deferred nonessential maintenance, according to Holloway and Eddy.

Eddy said, “The economy is good right now, so when the economy’s decent, people aren’t going back to school.”

Regarding the decline in enrollment, Eddy added, “I think it really does go back to the fact that we had those blip years that really kind of just skewed our enrollment.

“We did a lot of marketing those couple years … and I think we were just very, very fortunate,” she said.

Spencer said, “There is credence to the fact that enrollment has decreased 16.3% from the high-water mark – it’s erroneous to say that from the very beginning of the decade to the end that we saw the steady decrease.

“We’ve just had difficulty being able to get to that particular place of 924, and it’s not for lack of effort,” he added.

According to Spencer, the University was recently able to get a Slate CRM, a communication resource manager program that sends out personalized messages to prospective students in an attempt to make recruiting strategies more relevant and aggressive.

With the CRM, the University can license more names each year and develop a multi-year contact campaign with these high school students.

In addition to the Slate CRM, Director of Marketing Averil Capers discussed other recruitment strategies and advertisements the University uses.

She said digital or online marketing is the University’s main recruitment tool, and the most effective way to advertise outside the MetroWest region. This includes advertisements on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pandora, and YouTube.

Geo-fencing is used by the University to target certain areas of interest, so students in those areas see FSU’s advertisements, according to Capers.

In terms of “traditional” advertising, the University has signs in local sports arenas, as well as on all 20 of the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority’s buses. “You want to make sure that the folks in Framingham and surrounding communities don’t forget about Framingham State University … so I think it’s a good way to remind people in the area that we’re here,” said Capers.

Eddy credits her team of counselors with doing a good job of recruiting students beyond the MetroWest area. Her staff divides the state into “territories,” which means her counselors have been traveling to the same spots for a few years.

“It’s really about building up those relationships,” Eddy said. “If you’re going to make an investment at a university, you want to make sure that you know the people – that you feel comfortable with them.”

Capers added, “We’re pretty much out there at all times,” describing how cable television and radio stations such as Kiss 108 and AMP 103.3 are used to broadcast the University’s message.

In October, AMP 103.3 used FSU as an educational sponsor at a high school football promotion, which allowed the University to hand out novelty items – such as pens and cowbells – to those in attendance.

“I think it’s important because we’ve developed a brand and a look, so when you’re out there and see one of our advertisements, we want it to resonate that it’s Framingham State,” said Capers.

“You’re out there, you’re wanting to build brand awareness, but also, we want to bring prospective students to the website,” Capers added, saying FSU’s website is “its biggest marketing tool.”

Data from the University’s website between September and October of this year indicated a 21.75% increase in users over that same time last year. Capers said this jump in website traffic could be attributed to cable television advertisements that ran during that time.

Some of the most effective ways to recruit transfer students include posters and electronic signs in community colleges, advertisements in college newspapers, and social media ads.

Capers said the University plans to advertise on a billboard in an unnamed location this coming spring to advertise FSU’s graduate program. “We try to get the word out so people know about Framingham State – remember it,” she said.

According to Capers, the beginning of the summer is used to develop a marketing plan, while mid-September through December are peak months for advertising to first-year students for next fall semester. January, February, and March are prime months to advertise to transfer students.

“I’ve been here now for 20 years, and we’re doing more marketing than ever,” Eddy said.

According to Spencer, retention, persistence, and graduation rates are critical to the entire enrollment process.

“We pay a lot of attention to this,” he said. “It’s not like we’re throwing darts in the dark and trying to make this work.”

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