It started in September 2012 with listening. A lot of it. Six campus dialogue sessions, facilitated by Pensacola-based branding and communications firm idgroup, provided insights into how stakeholders view The W and what they value about the university. Some very important messages emerged.
Idgroup president Mona Amodeo presented the findings in a public session attended by several hundred and said that The W is unique in the marketplace. "It appeals to students and faculty attracted to a more intimate, personalized four-year educational experience usually characteristic of private institutions. It offers a challenging learning environment for those who seek to distance themselves from the complexity of large institutions," she said.
That became the beginning point for a reexamination of how—and what—The W communicated with all of its constituents: prospective students, current students, and alumni and friends. It was the beginning of detailed analysis, close self-examination and a lot of hard work by many. To facilitate a deeper understanding, President Jim Borsig set into motion strategies to collect data on which to base resource decisions and institutional priorities.
Understanding the marketplace
One of the first goals was to understand the higher education demographic landscape, both immediate and long-term. National higher education consulting firm Noel- Levitz began a series of campus meetings to outline the state of recruiting, best practices across the country and potential strategies for The W. At the same time, The W began to collect, organize and analyze detailed data about itself, the first step in what Borsig labeled "the democratization of data." "Everyone should have access to information that drives decision-making," he said.
Like institutions nationwide, The W finds itself facing stiff competition in recruiting new students among a shrinking number of traditional-age students.
In 2013-14, there were 27,582 high school seniors and 52 institutions of higher education in Mississippi, both two and four-year. Not all graduating seniors will continue their studies, and not all who do will study in the state. It is, in a very real sense, a 'buyer's' market. Institutions face increased pressure to prove their value and define their core strengths while keeping higher education affordable for their students. At the same time, there are significant shifts anticipated in ethnicity of college-age students, with growing numbers of both Hispanic and African-American students projected in Mississippi. While many are college-able, they are not always college-ready, increasing the demand for services that help ensure completion and success. The higher education landscape is vastly different than it was a decade ago.
Understanding our students
To further define core strengths and core mission, Dr. Jim Borsig first turned to the Office of Institutional Research to learn more about students The W serves. The results were published in fact books available on The W's website.
One thing the university community learned from the data is that The W's student profile is unique in the state system of public higher education. The average age of a W student is 26, a reflection of the fact that many working and older adults turn to the university for their educational opportunities. Some 37 percent of the student population is African-American, similar to the ethnic breakdown of the state as a whole. Male enrollment has grown from 17 percent in 2012 to 19 percent in 2014. Nearly 90 percent of those enrolled are Mississippi students, with 78 Mississippi counties, 25 other states, and 11 countries represented. The College of Nursing and Speech-Language Pathology is The W's largest, with more than 1,000 enrolled in programs ranging from the associate of science in nursing to the doctor of nursing practice.
Importantly to Borsig, The W has the highest completion rate of any public university in Mississippi. "We are graduating students at a significantly higher rate than most state institutions," he said. The W graduates 31.6 students per 100 full-time students, while the IHL average is 20.3. "Clearly, our personalized learning environment is helping students reach academic milestones," he said.
Survey instruments such as the National Survey of Student Engagement also gave university officials an objective look at the student population and how they perceive their experiences at The W. NSSE annually collects information from freshman and senior students at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities about student participation in programs and activities the institutions provide for learning and personal development. The results provide an estimate of how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college, according to NSSE.
In the most recent assessment, freshman students at The W rated the university significantly higher than peer institutions in higher order learning, collaborative learning, discussions with diverse others, effective teaching practices and supportive environment.
Seniors at The W reported significantly higher development than peer institutions in eight of 10 engagement indicators, including all indicators for experiences with faculty and campus environment. In addition, The W was significantly higher in higher order learning, reflective and integrative learning, learning strategies and discussions with diverse others.
"These surveys give us a snapshot of how students perceive the quality of a W education, and NSSE consistently confirms the high calibre academic experience, as well as the level of support our students receive," Borsig said.
With the data to support it, the university began to market core strengths reflected by listening sessions, internal analyses, and surveys. Key messages included quality instruction, personal attention, affordable cost and a family atmosphere. These messages were articulated by students in early focus groups and have been reinforced in subsequent follow-ups. Marketing materials supported student recruitment as well as increased awareness of The W brand and included billboards, TV commercials, print advertising and a variety of direct-mail publications. At the same time, the university's web presence was redesigned with a focus on students, student life and academic programs—a two-year process.
Continuing its work with Noel-Levitz, Student Affairs restructured on-campus visits, providing more opportunities for students to engage with faculty and support staff. "We discovered that having a student on campus makes a significant difference in their decision," said Dr. Jennifer Miles, Vice President for Student Affairs. "Students fall in love with The W once they're here. We designed more events to welcome students and parents."
Shelley Moss, director of admissions, said the approach is beneficial for all. Based on Noel-Levitz recommendations, her office restructured campus visits to designate consistent daily time slots. "Before, folks could just drop in and we'd try to accommodate," she explained. Now, at designated times, the staff tries to ensure that visiting students meet with a staff member, faculty member and a student. "We've had increased campus visits, and this approach allows us to be better prepared," Moss said. It also allows visitors to get a greater feel for all aspects of campus, including financial aid, student life and academics, she added.
Financial aid also was restructured according to Noel-Levitz recommendations. "We have a very inclusive approach," Moss said. "We weigh ACT scores and grade point equally, taking into account that not all students test well." Students received awards automatically based on these criteria, and were notified within three to five days of their admission to The W. "It's broadened financial aid opportunities for students who attend," Moss said. More than 1,300 students, including freshmen and transfers, received awards for fall 2014. Out-of-state tuition waivers, which had applied to selected Alabama and Tennessee counties, were expanded to include the entire state, providing additional financial incentives for students in adjacent states.
In addition to on-campus events, Admissions hosted four meet-and-greets around the state and one in nearby Tuscaloosa. "We held these at 'fun' restaurant venues and used it as another opportunity to introduce The W to prospective students," Moss said.
Enrollment Management Council
To provide an overarching structure for enrollment strategies, one key initiative was the formation of an Enrollment Management Task Force. Headed by Dr. Miles, it included representatives from the faculty, staff and all Student Affairs divisions. That committee now has been formally constituted as a standing council to continue its work.
"This committee involves all constituencies of the university in setting our admission and retention strategies," Miles explained. "It's important to have every member of our university community be a part of the recruitment team and a part of helping our students stay in school, succeed academically and complete their degree. We all touch students' lives, and we all can make a difference in their experience at The W.
"One advantage of a council such as this one is that we all see the data and the opportunities," Miles said. "Recruitment and retention efforts cross administrative and academic areas. We are all recruiters, and we're all part of the larger effort to help our students progress and graduate."
Historic residence halls present both challenges and opportunities in creating a welcoming atmosphere for students who live on campus. Upgrades during the last year have enhanced buildings that, in some cases, date to 1860s. Beginning with the oldest, Callaway, there was a phased effort that included a furniture replacement plan, new window treatments in selected buildings, enhanced lounges, improved Internet access and replacement of micro-fridges, said Sirena Cantrell, dean of students.
"Our goal is to create a welcoming, fresh environment for our students, both current and prospective," she said. "We also introduced a standardized color palette that is equally at home in our historic halls and our newer halls," she said. To reinforce the W's color palette, residence halls received new awnings in the university's signature blue, as well as W-branded welcome mats. These were phased in to other campus buildings as well.
As part of the enhancements, Housing and Residence Life added standardized exterior signage for the residence halls. All residence halls now have fire suppression systems, and a landscaped green space adjacent to Kincannon, begun last spring, is now complete and in frequent use.
Academic and student life support
To support the university's strategic goal of helping students advance successfully toward degree completion, the Student Success Center is playing a key role in ensuring students access to the resources that help them stay at The W and graduate, Borsig said.
"The redesign of the former Center for Academic Excellence grew out of a year-long campus-wide effort," he said. "I'm especially grateful for the work of Dr. Kate Brown as interim director over the past year and her role in leading the successful implementation of the recommendations."
The university named Dr. David Brooking as the new director of the center. Brooking, who came to The W from Enterprise State Community College in Alabama, has about 13 years of experience in higher education at both the community college and university levels. He holds a doctorate in higher education from The University of Alabama.
The Student Success Center serves as a resource for both students and faculty, Brooking said. It offers services such as learning skills courses, career planning, developmental instruction and tutoring, among others.
"We want our campus colleagues to know that our center works with all students," Brooking said. "We will help them at any point in their studies. We want to help good students become better and provide resources for those who need additional support."
Brooking said he sees the center as a partner with faculty in ensuring student success. As part of that partnership, each of the four colleges now has a navigator whose role is to be a resource for students and faculty in academic advising and in supporting retention. Navigators report both to the dean of their respective college and to the Student Success Center director.
The philosophy of the center is simple, Brooking said. "It shouldn't be challenging for students to find help. The only thing that should be challenging is their academic classwork." By helping students focus their time and studies toward timely completion, Brooking said the university is also helping students make the best use of their resources. "The less time they spend completing the degree, the more they're able to minimize what they spend. We believe we'll be helping them move more quickly into their career fields."
Putting it together
Starting two years ago with campus dialogues, many members of the campus community have had a hand in redefining student recruitment, retention and campus life. The foundation has been laid and many of the pieces are in place. The work is beginning to pay off in increased visibility, increased enrollment and a revitalized on-campus living experience. "We've come a long way," said Borsig, "and I'm proud of all we've accomplished. We have strong building blocks for the future."