The decrease in fall enrollment at the University of Alabama was not a surprise — university officials signaled in the spring that they expected growth to be flatter after a historic high in 2017.

The dip was less than half a percent, but it broke a 16-year streak of continuous growth, which was in high gear from 2003 until 2017 when it reached a historic high of 38,563. UA's growth has had far-reaching implications for the city of Tuscaloosa's economy, infrastructure and more, so any fluctuation in enrollment is bound to have effects off campus.

However, UA President Stuart Bell and Executive Vice President Kevin Whitaker say the decrease isn’t a sign that a national trend of enrollment declines is finally catching up with the Capstone but evidence of a shifting strategy as the administration looks ahead to the next decade.

“Really, it is a shift from, let me just call it recruiting — we are still going to recruit — but it is a shift from recruiting to enrollment management. And In fact, as I have said over the last several years, we have been planting those seeds,” Whitaker said.

Bell signaled with the rollout of his strategic plan in 2016 that he envisioned more measured growth after a period of sharp growth that saw the student body nearly double.

Graduate student enrollment grew by 129 to 4,916, and new transfer admissions remained steady at 1,555.

The overall enrollment for fall 2018 was 38,392, according to official census data released Thursday. The incoming freshman class of 6,663 was about 10 percent smaller than last year, and applications by first-time students were down by 1,481 to 37,302, according to university figures.

In the undergraduate population, the greatest drop was among in-state students. This fall, 13,135 students from Alabama were enrolled as undergraduates, 530 fewer than last year, while the out-of-state undergraduate enrollment grew from 19,000 to 19,190.

“We are looking to be more strategic in how we look at enrollment growth from the fields we are looking at from undergraduate, to graduate, to professional,” Bell said. “The idea is, if you go back to our strategic plan we pushed out about two years ago, it talks about making sure we grow at a level that we maintain both quality of students and quality of our programs and to be more focused so we get to where we are trying to go.”

Bigger net or better net?

Whitaker compared the recruiting and enrollment strategy to a net. UA can either continue to cast a wider net, he said, or it can try to make the net it now casts more efficient in how it captures applicants and retains students.

“I believe back 15 years ago the discussion, the idea of us going from 20,000 to 40,000, while scary, was … perhaps reasonable because there are other institutions that are 35,000-40,000. I believe it was in this realm of possibility,” Whitaker said.

As leadership looks ahead for the next 20 years, they face a question of what is a practical growth target, Whitaker said.

“Are universities supposed to be 80,000, 100,000, 120,000? I don’t mean to be silly about that, but there is this point that, OK, you can’t just be looking at that kind of growth over the next 10 years, and the next 10 years. So where is it you are going?” Whitaker said. “That was a discussion that Dr. Bell and I had when he arrived. What is our next journey? That is where you get into this enrollment management.”

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which compiles data on student enrollment, retention, transfers and other information, reported in its spring current term estimate, enrollments at four-year public institutions were down 0.2 percent. Enrollments at degree-granting institutions in Alabama were up 0.3 percent.

Despite the recent dips in enrollment in national trends and at UA, Jason DeWitt, research manager at the research center, said demand for college remains strong, with about 70 percent of recent high school graduates attending college.

“That is the highest that it has ever been. Some of the narratives that have been out that have been circulating about alternative credentials and boot camps and people discounting the value of college, it is hard to say what is going to happen in the longer term, but all the current data points to high school graduates wanting to go to college as much as they ever have,” DeWitt said.

In Alabama, there were at least 49,764 high school graduates last fall, according to data compiled by the Alabama Commission on Higher Education based on reports by the state department of education. Figures for 2017-18 weren’t available. The figures show a slight decrease from fall 2016 when there were 49,953, though the population of students enrolling at public four-year institutions in the state remained steady at nearly 12,000.

Whitaker and Bell say the university has begun to adjust the dials.

“We have a knob we turn just as any company does that is out there,” Bell said. “On how we do recruiting, on how we build new programs, on how we change curriculum, where we are hiring new faculty so we have more capacity. We have had some areas that we have had so much growth in we really need to add some faculty. We may also need to control enrollment growth in those areas.”

The managerial approach ranges from diversifying the student body by focusing on graduate, transfer and international students to increasing retention rates and improving engagement with applicants.

“I talked about diversifying our portfolio in the sense that the university is not just made up of one singular item but a number of items,” Whitaker said. “It has been exciting to look at enhancing our graduate student numbers, our transfer numbers, our international numbers, and yet still recruit undergraduates in the past. Although, what we have done there is very, very successful and we have very, very high quality students applying to the university. We can manage that a little bit better.”

In its managerial approach, the administration has been considering the demographics of the students on campus, recruitment and retention. Whitaker said the pivot has included new staff and restructuring of offices, new software and analytics, as well as exploring partnerships with consultants.

Retention has been an ongoing priority, Whitaker said.

“These are student that are already here. If we can solve problems that help them be successful in their return, it is 'cheaper' than to go out and cast that net again even bigger,” he said. “So again, it is that management aspect that is so exciting.”

Whitaker also sees opportunities to increase efficiency in capturing applicants. Historically, the university has admitted about half of the students who have applied in the last decade and enrolled about 40 percent of the students admitted. Part of the challenge has been understanding why applicants leave or fail to complete the process.

“If we already have people engaged with university that have applied, they have been admitted, maybe they have not completed some additional steps. If we can keep them in, in my mind, it is less expensive than going out and trying to cast that net even wider,” he said.

The goal is to better stay in contact with applicants and provide them information that is relevant.

“When you look at the number of applications we get, it is up in the high 30,000s. To make sure, as best we can, treating each one of those as one,” Whitaker said. “Extrapolating, that is just the number who applied to the university. Beyond that, you hope there is some number greater than that who have at least thought about the university.”

 

University of Alabama enrollment
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As part of the management strategy, the university has sought revamped materials and software to help it better target potential recruits.

“Back when (former UA president) Dr. (Robert) Witt got here and we were starting to recruit in Texas and Florida, I am not sure social media was even part of the discussions, but the software packages now can make connections in ways I am not even sure I understand,” Whitaker said. “But it allows us to do very focused and targeted recruiting so we can send something to Orlando that is different than what we send to Miami and complete different to what we send to Chicago.”

The university is also re-evaluating its scholarship packages.

“We have been looking at those for 1.5-2 years, making sure those are the most impactful that they can be right now," Whitaker said. “I don’t mean to be a crass administrator, but the most impactful they can be for the cost. We are continually looking at that and having those discussions and asking those questions. When we get into trouble is if we just put them on the shelf … I think we are trying to be more dynamic in this sense of looking at it.”

At the June meeting, UA proposed no tuition increases for in-state students and a budget priority for scholarships to attract more in-state students. The breakdown of Alabama residents and non-Alabama residents for 2018 remained the same with about 60 percent of the student body coming from outside of the state. UA saw a transition in 2012 and 2013 as out-of-state students grew to be the majority.

“I think it is trying to acknowledge who we are. We are a state institution and so to certainly make the University of Alabama accessible to as many in the state as we possibly can,” Whitaker said of the tuition decision.

'Diversifying the portfolio'

Whitaker likened the makeup of the study body to an investment portfolio. The strategy of the past 15 years of heavily recruiting undergraduates was a success, but there is a risk of overinvesting in one sector.

The enrollment management strategy that refocuses on graduate, international and transfer students is meant to defuse the risk of a crash in undergraduate recruiting, Whitaker said.

“We are very fortunate to be where we are today, but I think if you then project forward with a kind of pessimistic eye, I wish it would continue to grow but … it is going to bust? How do we respond to that? So again it is that forward-looking idea, let's plan for that. If it doesn’t happen, great, if it does happen, we have a plan,” Whitaker said.

Graduate students remain a priority as the university tries to increase its research profile.

“Certainly, the second pillar we have in our strategic plans is growing our research and growing our achievements in scholarship,” Bell said. “That certainly happens at the undergraduate level, but it also happens more significantly at the graduate level, so we see that as an area that we want to make sure we are providing greater focus on.”

Doubling graduate enrollment presents different challenges than doubling the size of the undergraduate student body.

‘The doctoral level is very specific. There are certain laboratories that are needed, so the level of effort is higher,” Whitaker said.

UA's graduate enrollment has remained relatively static for most of the last decade, with an average of about 4,700.

“We have really planted some serious seeds there. We probably won’t see the fruits of that for a year or two,” Whitaker said.

The university is looking at working with recruiting consultants similar to the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s partnership with INTO University Partnerships, IUP 2, to grow its international student enrollment.

“While it is a little bit easier to send faculty, staff or recruiters out to the continental U.S., it is another matter to send them to China,” Whitaker said.

The administration has discussed doubling its transfer student enrollment. The enrollment for transfer students in the fall of 2018 from other institutions remained similar to previous years as well.

“There are tremendous opportunities for us to recruit students within the state, from really the entire state geographically. From the community college and junior colleges,” Whitaker said.

Incoming freshmen present challenges for campus capacity, ranging from dorms to chemistry labs, biology labs, and seats in sections of introductory English composition.

“But when you look at recruiting transfers students, they can come to us having completed 60 hours that include these courses I mentioned,” Whitaker said. “Then we don’t have to wrestle with providing that and we move them directly into upper division courses. That is an example of why looking at different populations of students is important in my opinion.”

Revenue impact

Tuition and fees have come to represent roughly 45 percent of the university’s operating revenues. As state appropriations shrank after the recession, the university increasingly came to depend on tuition as a revenue source. In part, the rapid enrollment growth of the study body since 2003 was meant to fuel the growth of the campus.

“We have invested to a level now where we are a lot closer to where we should be from a facilities standpoint than we were, but we still have facilities that we will be building even this year,” Bell said. “We will continue to do that. You have got to continue innovating if it is a research or academic building.”

As the university shifts its strategy, Whitaker said the administration is mindful of the potential impact on revenue.

“We want to make sure whatever we do with our enrollment management doesn’t have a negative impact on revenue,” he said. “We are so fortunate to be where we are with what Dr. Witt and what Dr. (Judy) Bonner did to be able to, I hate to say pause, but when Dr. Bell got here we were — and still are — in such great shape that we now had this chance to say OK, how do we plan for five, 10, 15, years from now to make sure our revenue is where we need it to be?”

The question of revenues extends beyond the border of campus. Jim Page, president of the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, estimated student spending off campus, based on last fall’s enrollment, was about $385,000,000.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if, when we get our next numbers back, if it is closer to $500 million,” he said.

Page predicted the enrollment dip was unlikely to stoke concerns in the business community, where the growth of the university remains a top driver of the economic success of the city.

“The bottom line is this doesn’t or shouldn’t scare anyone. Every year, the university has a significant number of applications that come in,” he said. “The university brand is at an all-time high in terms of stature nationally and internationally.”

Most retailers and the developers are looking at the overall business climate, Page said.

“This is still a very vibrant market," Page said. “The student buying power is still significant. The spending that students do off campus is still significant.”

To Page, a more controlled approach to growth makes sense.

“When you have more controlled, measured growth it allows everyone to plan better and to address that growth more appropriately,” he said, noting city infrastructure has to catch up with student growth.