Can Tressel Capitalize on Positive Enrollment Numbers?

After a rough few years for Youngstown State University, it looks like there may finally be some good news. YSU’s enrollment decreased this semester. That’s the good news.

To be more specific, the good news is that enrollment decreased less than what was expected. YSU’s administration was prepared — and budgeted for — a 6.3 percent decrease in enrollment, a number that mirrored the decrease percentage of 2014’s fall enrollment. In a pleasant turn of events, enrollment only declined 4 percent for the spring semester.

While no one wants to see enrollment declines, a decline in declines is a decline worth noting.
To be fair, this semester’s numbers may be a fluke. Come fall, we may see a sharp decline in enrollment yet again. Assuming this isn’t a fluke, though, it may be a sign that the pendulum is finally beginning to swing in the opposite direction when it comes to enrollment.

There are several factors that may be playing into the change.

First, YSU may be — and, if numbers are to be believed, is likely — benefitting from an action former YSU President Randy Dunn made: hiring Gary Swegan to oversee enrollment and recruitment endeavors.
While a bloated administrative staff is often a battle cry for those who want to see change at the university — one that in some ways certainly seems legitimate — the addition of Swegan to the YSU community seems to be paying off. Crash Day attendance has been generally on the rise, and Swegan’s track record of attracting high caliber students is likely at least partially responsible for YSU’s fall semester boasting the most academically impressive freshman class in the university’s history.

Beyond Swegan’s efforts and that of alumni organizations like the YSU Foundation, Pete’s Pride and various others, another potential draw to students enrolling at YSU may be the big man in Tod Hall.

Regardless of whether picking a college because the president is a storied college football coach is right or wrong, it can’t be ignored that having Jim Tressel at the university helm is likely a contributing factor to some students’ decisions to attend YSU.

Tressel can’t turn the university around on his name alone, and if his first year as president has shown anything, he’s well aware of that fact.

Let’s not dance around the facts. Tressel has ruffled some feathers in his first year as president. The method by which Martin Abraham was selected for provost was one that was criticized by many faculty members as a disregard of shared authority on the campus, and a vocal group of University Scholars both past and present have voiced displeasure at the administration’s plans to limit the amount of full tuition and board scholarships awarded per year, instead opting to use the money to grow the newly created Honors College.
That being said, Tressel has also set the groundwork for capitalizing on a swing in enrollment.

Tressel’s most persistent campaign since his installation as president has focused on increasing enrollment, recruitment and retention. There is nothing particularly novel about this, as that is generally the goal of every higher education administration across the nation.

What is commendable is that there have already been concrete steps taken towards addressing the problems that plague so many campuses nationwide.

Taking a page out of the University of Akron’s playbook, the administration has hired a third party company, Royall & Company, that specializes in higher education recruitment to come in and boost YSU’s incoming students. While the numbers have yet to come in, Tressel has expressed confidence that the company’s involvement will bolster enrollment as they did at the University of Akron. The Pete’s Pride program, another idea Tressel adopted from his time at Akron, is an alumni program that asks alumni to volunteer their time and presence in recruitment campaigns rather than simply asking for more money.

Love it or hate it, the Honors College may also enhance YSU’s attractiveness to prospective students who might not have considered the university without the offer of a scholarship. While a lack of full tuition and board scholarships may also turn off some students with multiple offers from various colleges, it stands to reason that offering more money to more students will bring in higher numbers. Time will tell.
Each of these endeavors, however, is built towards a larger goal of the university administration: attracting nonregional students.

While the easy and cynical read of this campaign is to say “Well of course they want out-of-state students, they have to pay more,” there is legitimacy to this plan of action beyond ringing dollars out of non-Ohioans.
It is no secret that Youngstown is one of the fastest shrinking cities in America. While Youngstown is an exceptional example of a location hemorrhaging population, we are a part of a larger diaspora of individuals leaving the Rust Belt.

The Washington Post recently reported that while the Northeastern United States had a slight population growth due to births and immigration, there was a net loss of population due to residents moving.
What this means is that there are simply fewer students to go around.

When one part of a lake has been fished dry, anglers must move to another, and colleges are no different. While we reach out to students in western New York, it is no doubt that colleges in western New York are reaching out to Ohioans. In order to survive, YSU has to cast a net wider and further and do so with more intention than in previous years.

YSU has a lot of issues to work out. Relations between the administration and the faculty and staff have improved little since the fall, arguments surrounding athletic spending versus academic spending still rage and budgetary concerns still have departments up against the wall.

At least this spring, it can be said that there’s a real, verifiable glimmer of hope shining through the slowing of decline in enrollment.

The administration has a plan. Let’s hope it pans out.