By Amelia Eichel
Dean of the College Bruce Suttmeier is leading administration, faculty and staff in a new initiative, referred to as Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM), aimed at boosting net tuition revenue, raising retention rates and stabilizing fluctuating enrollment numbers.
“We’ve been working since the beginning of last year to boost the college’s effort to attract, admit and retain strong students,” Suttmeier said. “What’s important is that SEM become a broad-based collectively implemented effort, that it be run not through one or two offices, but that it includes all of us who interact with students before and during their time on campus.”
The SEM steering committee includes the college’s administrators and a faculty representative. There are also five subcommittees, or work groups, of administrators, faculty and staff who are tasked with collecting data on and strategizing about retention, marketing, student life, finances, and academics.
Rachel Cole, Associate Professor of English and Department Chair, is the faculty representative on the steering committee. She leads the academic work group charged with reviewing the curriculum and all academic programming, with an eye towards meeting the institution’s enrollment management goals.
“Our particular constellation of majors and minors, overseas programs, and the opportunity to work closely with professors in and beyond the classroom are all aspects of LC academics that excite prospective students and that can make us distinct from other colleges,” Cole said.
LC faces a challenge with regards to first and second-year students; namely, that they often feel less connected to the College until they have chosen a major and made strong connections with a department and its faculty.
Because many first and second year students complete their general education requirements in their early years at LC, general education courses become key to student’s satisfaction with the institution, or lack thereof.
“It’s absolutely imperative that we keep the impact of our general ed programs on enrollment in mind as we redesign general education especially because when we are recruiting students to the college, what happens during their first year is a large part of what’s attracting them,” Cole said.
Specific departments have also made changes to the courses they offer to first year students with hopes of engaging them academically.
“In religious studies, we have shifted departmental resources toward first-year oriented classes,” Department Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies Paul Powers said. “We started offering four new 100-level classes. They’re meant to catch people’s attention and address subjects that we know students are interested in. The issue isn’t serving our department and getting more majors in, the issue is putting good classes in front of first-year students.”
Powers is a member of the retention subcommittee for SEM which started meeting in Spring 2018, before the full SEM Committee was formed. The retention subcommittee focuses on obtaining data that can help identify why students leave LC, and finding strategies to address the issues identified through the data.
“Ten years ago one of the problems we had here was retaining students who struggled academically,” Powers said. “We really revamped the office of academic advising. The good news is, the data seems to suggest that while we didn’t move our overall retention numbers, we do seem to be serving students who are struggling better in being able to get people out of moments of crisis. The bad news is our retention numbers didn’t go up dramatically, so we still have students who are leaving here not because they can’t handle it academically or because they ran into some crisis but for other reasons that are harder to identify.”
LC has an 84 percent average retention rate for first and second year students which is consistently a few points lower than comparable institutions.
“We have a lot of energy put into our majors, so when people find those connections, people are really happy here,” Powers said. “What we’re not doing right is catching students earlier.”
Retention is also a financial strategy. The loss of tuition revenue when students leave makes it harder to plan the budget and ensure the college’s financial stability.
One strategy for improving enrollment and retention is making the college distinct from its competitors. “It’s important to understand that Lewis & Clark is in a very competitive market place,” Cole said. “Most of our competitors have more resources than we do; they have larger endowments … The school will be looking at how we can use the departments, programs and faculty that we currently have to develop new courses and new interdisciplinary programs, like the Middle East and North African Studies minor.”
Another strategy involves taking better advantage of the college’s location. Portland’s robust artistic scene, natural environment, business community and history of racism provide many engaging opportunities for students and faculty.
“So many of our conversations brought us to the realization that we need to look at how student life is connected to the greater Portland community,” Interim Dean of Students Andrew McPheeters said. “We need to look at if we are bringing uniquely Portland things to campus.”
SEM’s steering committee’s goal is to complete and submit to the president a CAS Strategic Enrollment Plan early Summer 2019.
“The enrollment plan, like the institutional strategic plan almost completed, will have many programmatic goals embedded in it — such as boosting retention and graduation rates, better identifying struggling students — but it is working toward these goals that will help us reach our larger goals of strengthening our financial picture and better fulfilling our pedagogical mission,” Suttmeier said.