Johnson presents new challenges, solutions for dwindling enrollment

VP of Enrollment and Student Services Steven L. Johnson addresses the CMU Board of Trustees as they meet in the University Center on Thursday September 19, 2013.

Vice President of Enrollment and Student Services Steven Johnson has identified three major challenges on campus that, if addressed, might have a hand in upping Central Michigan University's appeal to prospective students.

Johnson's long-awaited, comprehensive enrollment management plan points to an outdated financial aid policy, lack of faculty outreach and an overwhelming student-to-counselor ratio as factors for CMU's decaying enrollment. Implementation of the plan is scheduled to begin in the 2014-15 academic year.

Previously, university officials pointed to a reduction in high school graduates coming from local area public and private K-12 schools as the biggest issue affecting freshman enrollment.

"Retention is a big piece (to this)," Johnson said. "There's no secret that it costs far more for us to recruit students than it does to retain them, and that means we have to be more intrusive. We can't be reactive. We have to forge relationships with students at all levels so that we understand and build a level of trust and support."

In terms of financial aid, Johnson said the university has not revisited the policy on merit-based performance awards in quite some time.

"I double checked our files, and we have not reviewed our financial aid philosophy in more than a decade," Johnson said. "And as many of you know, a lot has changed over a decade from an economic perspective."

The current financial aid philosophy states students can only receive monies for academic performance when they first enter the CMU framework as either freshmen or transfer students. For students already deep in the fold, Johnson said, it is impossible to apply for these types of awards, even if they are excelling academically.

This odd bylaw, Johnson said, could be a deciding factor for late-in-the-game students who decide whether to leave CMU for another, more affordable academic institution.

"Fortunately and unfortunately, college cost has become a considerable factor in recruitment and retention," he said. "And how you best control college cost is through financial aid. We want to incentivize students who are successful academically."

By changing this policy and finding a way to offer these scholarships to students with GPAs of 3.0-3.5 or higher, Johnson mused that it could keep many of its need-based students on board.

For Trustee Sarah Opperman, the fact that financial aid policy had not been evaluated in a decade was troubling, as was the proposed date of implementation.

"That seems to me is going to be a critical component to this," Opperman said. "We don't have to wait for the next fiscal year to start (these solutions). Let's not wait for another cycle."

Regarding counseling, Johnson's report identified the ratio of students to professional and academic counseling staff is nearly 1,000-to-one – an admission of how thinly spread the counseling department has become.

Although the deans of each college played a more active role in professional and academic counseling, five full-time employee positions were created over the summer to ease counseling struggles. Johnson's plan would work to narrow that ratio down to 600-to-one – the ideal ratio, he said, would be 300-to-one.

If the plan is implemented and that ratio is not drastically decreased, Johnson said hiring new counseling staff is an option on the table.

Lastly, faculty outreach to prospective and existing students is marked as a major challenge facing the university. Historically, Johnson said, CMU's faculty members have rarely been forced to engage in the recruitment process. Under his plan, faculty members' experience, personalities and qualifications would be used as a marketing tool.

"By leveraging our faculty, we can connect to students on a much more personal basis," he said. "Not only would faculty (members) be asked to guide and implement programs, but they'll be asked to build better relationships with our students as we move forward. The response from faculty I've received on this has been positive. Those who I've spoken with are ready and awaiting instruction."

Although these core challenges and their solutions potentially represent a more focused approach, Board of Trustees Chairman Brian Fannon stressed the importance of Johnson's plan working.

"If you do this and the retention rate doesn't improve, we've lost," he said.


About Ben Solis

Ben Solis is the Managing Editor of Central Michigan Life. He has served as a city and university ...

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