Colleges say retention is key as enrollment pools shrink

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BELOIT - College enrollment officials in the area say as the pool of applicants to recruit shrinks nationwide, retention has become the top priority when planning for the future.

"Stabilization is priority one," said Mike Quinn, interim vice president for enrollment management at Rockford University. "You want to be able to look out three years and say, 'This is what we're going to have to work with.'"

Matt Aschenbrener, associate vice chancellor for enrollment and retention at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said the university noted a decline in student enrollment about two years ago and began to renew its focus areas.

Aschenbrener said UW-Whitewater has hired consultants and adopted "significant changes" to its recruitment efforts in a push to respond to various trends nationally and in the region.

Key areas of focus include hosting more on-campus visits to gauge interest, stepping up email campaigns, checking in with applicants throughout the process, reaching out to high schools sooner and offering scholarships, Aschenbrener said.

"The competition is significant for all students. The benefit of completing a higher education degree is really important," Aschenbrener said.

Aschenbrener said enrollment tends to decrease when the economy is strong. As birth rates have declined in recent years, college admissions pools have become increasingly competitive, he said.

About 80% of UW-Whitewater students come from hometowns located within 80 miles of the Whitewater campus. A number of students transfer from regional two-year community colleges or technical trade schools to complete bachelor's degrees in Whitewater, Aschenbrener said.

UW-Whitewater has seen an increase in students coming from northern Illinois and paying out-of-state tuition. About 15% to 16% of freshman classes are students from northern Illinois. Aschenbrener said it's sometimes less expensive for Illinois residents to attend school at UW-Whitewater than go to some universities in Illinois.

Quinn said many students in the U.S. attend colleges located within 300 miles of their hometowns. Rockford University draws a significant percentage of its students from the northern Illinois area.

"It all comes down to fit," Quinn said. "It could be price. It could be because students want to get away from home without being too far from home."

Rockford University recruiters have renewed their focus to search for graduate students and adults seeking to complete degrees in addition to recruiting traditional undergraduate students right out of high school.

"We think in terms of pathways," Quinn said.

Rather than seeing other local colleges simply as competitors, Quinn said four-year institutions can encourage students earning an associate's degree or trade certifications to continue studying at Rockford University after graduating from two-year community colleges or tech schools.

According to information provided by Rita Elliott, director of marketing and communications at Rockford University, the college recorded 1,225 total undergraduate and graduate students combined for the Fall 2019 semester. That figure remains fairly consistent with the last several years. In Fall 2015, 1,281 students were enrolled, compared to 1,298 in Fall 2016, a total of 1,262 in Fall 2017 and 1,211 in Fall 2018.

Beloit College officials previously told the Beloit Daily News that the university hit its enrollment target of 270 incoming students this year. The Beloit Daily News reported June 6 that at least 277 first-year students were enrolled for the Fall 2019 semester.

The paper asked to connect with enrollment officials but had not received a response by presstime.

UW-Whitewater Director of University Communications Jeff Angileri said final numbers for the Fall 2019 semester aren't yet available for another couple weeks. But he was able to provide recent years' and preliminary data for both the Whitewater and Janesville campuses.

Final data for 2018 shows 975 students at UW-Whitewater at Rock County and 12,084 students at the Whitewater campus. Preliminary 2019 data shows 865 students at the Janesville campus and 11,503 students at the Whitewater campus.

According to the data, UW-Whitewater at Rock County, formerly UW-Rock County, reported 1,058 students in 2008-09, 1,175 in 2009-10, 1,215 in 2010-11, 1,289 in 2011-12, 1,305 in 2012-13, 1,224 in 2013-14, 1,152 in 2014-15, 1,155 in 2015-16, 1,038 in 2016-17 and 908 students in 2017-18.

UW-Whitewater previously recorded 10,962 students in 2008-09, 11,139 in 2009-10, 11,557 in 2010-11, 11,643 in 2011-12, 12,031 in 2012-13, 12,015 in 2013-14, 12,159 in 2014-15, 12,351 in 2015-16, 12,628 in 2016-17 and 12,430 in 2017-18, the data shows.

Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville has also seen steady enrollment, with some variation. A total of 2,316 students were enrolled for Fall 2019, according to information provided by public information officer Jennifer Thompson.

The college saw a total of 2,680 students in Fall 2014, 2,489 in Spring 2015, 2,375 in Fall 2015, 2,259 in Spring 2016, 2,175 in Fall 2016, 2,103 in Spring 2017, 2,265 in Fall 2017, 2,126 in Spring 2018, 2,375 in Fall 2018 and 2,227 in Spring 2019, according to the data.

Roughly 25% to 30% of Blackhawk Technical College students are full-time. The majority are part-time students, according to the data provided. High school and dual credit enrollment was not included in the data.

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