Central Michigan University could exceed its goal of 3,300 incoming freshman next fall by as many as 300 students.
About 3,500 students have already paid the $175 deposit fee to secure enrollment during the fall semester, and that number will only rise, said Thomas Speakman, director of Undergraduate Admissions.
At the same time last year, 2,221 students had paid the fee.
“We are absolutely going to meet the goal of 3,300 freshmen this fall,” Speakman said, “and probably come in more around 3,600.”
This is welcome news for a university dealing with decreased enrollment in recent years.
Last fall, CMU saw an incoming freshman class of 2,963 students, the lowest number of incoming freshmen since 1997. Just four years ago, CMU had its largest incoming freshman class since 1970. The number of new freshmen has declined 22.7 percent since the 2010 record enrollment, according to the CMU office of institutional research.
In response to the dramatic drop, CMU launched its Strategic Enrollment Management Plan aimed at rebranding the university, revamping financial aid and ultimately reversing the trends.
While many students, faculty and staff were skeptical of the plan, the incoming freshmen figures show measurable improvement.
CMU has received 8.9 percent more applications than last year and has admitted 13 percent more students, according to recently released admissions data.
The increase, university officials said, can be attributed to new marketing initiatives and a different approach to how CMU communicates with students.
Vice President of Student Enrollment Steven Johnson said the university is recruiting more heavily out of state and trying to increase exposure of CMU.
Marketing expenses have increased by 2,113 percent from 2010-11 to 2012-13, according to information provided by University Communications.
Full-marketing expenses totaled $923,108 for 2012-13.
CMU is also purchasing ACT data of students who did not send their scores to the university. It has purchased more than 140,000 test-taker names for a ballpark price of $30,000, Speakman said.
Johnson said he expects a new Constituent Relationship Management System to go live in June, which will enable more frequent, on-going communication with prospective applicants.
“That was something we did not have, and I think that was one of the pitfalls,” Johnson said of the new communication method. “We were not able to talk with students after they had already applied to the institution.”
New scholarships help fill freshman class
Other than heavy recruiting methods, the main reason freshman enrollment will increase for the first time since the 2010 boom is the university’s focus on new merit scholarships, Speakman said.
“The kids that in the past may or may not have been awarded a scholarship got one,” he said. “That’s what is driving our confirmations.”
Speakman said about 66 percent of the entering freshman class has some sort of merit-based scholarship, which does not include federal loans or grants. “Enrollment is rising and because of the scholarships, retention will also increase,” he said.
As long as these students take 30 credits per year and maintain a 3.25 GPA, they can renew their scholarship four years.
The GPA requirement was lowered from 3.5 to 3.0, and students must have at least a 21 ACT score.
CMU added $6 million to its 2014-15 scholarship program, making available a record of about $61 million, according to CMU’s tuition and financial aid website.
Johnson said this is not new money.
“We have always had scholarships,” he said. “Now we’ve become more structured in who we give the dollars to versus it being based on programs or interest areas.”
Although the move lowered the academic standards for getting scholarships, Johnson said the standards of the average CMU student have not fallen.
“Our indicators are showing that the class that is already admitted so far for the fall is actually higher (in standards) than the classes we just admitted for the last two years,” he said.
Reversing the trends
Considering the promising numbers, and the fact high school seniors will still be applying in the coming months, CMU seems on course to set another enrollment record.
However, Speakman said the university will stop taking deposits at around 3,600 or 3,700 students.
If numbers rise above this figure, CMU could employ a wait list.
“We haven’t finalized it yet, but we may say to the kids still paying, ‘We’ll take you, but instead of fall 2014, we’ll let you enroll in spring 2015,’” Speakman said. “We want to take small steps climbing back. We don’t want to go from 2,900 to 4,000 in one swoop.”
The university is learning from the mistake it made in 2010.
“When we had 4,100, that was too many,” Johnson said. “We lost more students after that freshman class than we lost any other year.”
Officials agree the overcrowded class negatively impacted retention rates the following year.
“CMU can only handle so many students and be able to provide a good education,” said Steve Smith, director of public relations. “If you bring in a lot of people, you have a larger class size, and it just puts a strain on the entire system.”
Other officials, like Johnson, have echoed the will to hold off on increasing too quickly.
“I am not going to admit more than the capacity we have to handle,” Johnson said. “(Having only) 3,500 to 3,600 students for an incoming class would probably be the max I would want to see.”
As for the 2010 boom, Speakman said he can only speculate why the university admitted more students than it had the capacity to handle.
“It’s possible that it was done to increase revenue,” he said. “That is what schools do. They are revenue driven. If you have more students, you have more tuition and room and board.”
CMU also had a bigger number of high schoolers to recruit from in 2010.
According to MI School Data, there were 125,089 high school seniors in the state for 2009-10. The number of seniors peaked in 2007-08 and has been on a steady decline since. This year there are 116,866.
While CMU is enrolling more students for fall 2014, the drastic decline following 2010 has left a dent in overall enrollment.
The university experienced a 2.9-percent decrease from last year in total enrollment.
The first step toward stabilizing enrollment is increasing the size of incoming freshman classes. The 2011-12 and 2013-14 classes are the smallest CMU has had since 1998.
“The enrollment is filtering through with smaller classes,” Speakman said. “So even though admissions are up, it is going to take more than one year to get enrollment back up.”
Johnson said enrollment might decline in some areas because many students from the 2010 class will be graduating this year.
Nothing can be certain until after fall classes have started. After the eighth day of classes – the snapshot day – students become officially enrolled, Speakman said.