Chancellor's Blog: Our audacious future

| Chancellor James Schmidt

As the new semester begins, and in follow-up to my remarks at the Feb. 1 Chancellor Conversation, I want to provide you with a look forward to our plans for student enrollment and retention. This has been an all-campus priority for the past several years and I am both grateful for campus efforts thus far and excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.

It's all about our mission

Student enrollment — and student success — are the heart of our university mission, the reason we come to work every day and love this place so dearly. Providing a distinctive education and transforming lives is what we’re about — and why I’m here at UW-Eau Claire.

Since I arrived six years ago, however, recruiting and retaining our students has become more challenging, as fewer students graduate high school, more institutions aggressively vie for prospective students’ attention and financial pressures strain families. While we have been able to successfully meet our target enrollment goals for 2,300 first-year students — and will most likely do so again this year — we are drawing from a shallower and shallower pool. Our total applications have declined over the past two years, this year by almost 400 applications, which hampers our ability to reach out to more diverse students.

Following the Enrollment Management Plan

This trend is not a surprise. As I tell people, we know 18 years in advance exactly how many newborns can become our applicants; we could see this demographic decline coming. So the first thing I did when I arrived on campus in 2013 was to form an Enrollment Management Task Force, chaired by Dr. Alex Smith, to lay out a roadmap for us. The task force recommendations were clear: grow enrollment, strengthen our selectivity, expand our multicultural enrollment, and increase student retention and graduation. Those recommendations make sense. They are the right, mission-focused strategy for UW-Eau Claire.

Restructuring to meet the challenge

In accordance with the task force’s recommendations, we made the 90 percent retention and 20 percent EDI Guidepost Goals our focused priorities. By honing in on retention and keeping more students here, we are able to reduce our reliance on a shrinking pool of applicants by admitting fewer first-year students, allowing us to shape our entering class for an even better fit. To support this goal, last fall I consulted with faculty, staff and students to restructure our enrollment efforts to create a special Enrollment Management Division, headed by a vice chancellor. We agreed to intentionally bring together all the units that directly impact student success — from Admissions to Advising, Housing to Athletics, and Recreation to Blugold Central. Now, as a collective division, they will be able to engage all of us in more intentional and coordinated ways. And I was delighted to name Albert Colom, with his decades of proven experience in enrollment management, to lead the division.

An audacious strategy

Looking forward, we now have a clear and comprehensive roadmap to expand our outreach, refocus on student retention and assure all our students a path to graduation and career. After all, there’s nothing better for first-year students than for them to know they made not just the right college choice but the best one. We know that a degree from UW-Eau Claire is distinctive and highly valuable. It’s an education worth talking about, especially to students who are looking for a learning community that will help them explore and push boundaries, and stand behind them to support them every step of the way. That’s a message that we know will resonate not only in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but farther afield as well. With our new structure in place, and the data we have from Carnegie Dartlet, we are poised to expand our enrollment efforts to find the best-fit Blugolds and keep them at UW-Eau Claire through graduation and career success.

What will this involve? Vice Chancellor Colom has consulted with shared governance and has formed teams of faculty and staff who are:

  • Mapping out the full student life cycle so we know all the points along the way from prospective student (beginning in middle school) through graduate and proud alum — and what students need to know, and when, to be successful.
  • Meeting with deans and chairs to create program-specific, data-informed student success plans that will help us recruit and retain learners who will succeed at UW-Eau Claire. This year will see plans created with faculty for more than 40 programs.
  • Forming a Rapid Response Team to proactively track and address common issues that hold back first-time/full-time students.
  • Creating new scholarship and financial aid options that will help families manage the costs of education over four years.
  • Launching a Student Enrollment Communication Center that can connect to students through real-time email, texting, phone and social media. We want all students to know we’re here for them.
  • Expanding our marketing efforts through research-based strategies that will help us focus more deeply in Wisconsin and Minnesota and expand beyond our borders to neighboring states. We’ve already added seven new Admissions visits to high schools and communities this spring.
  • Communicating a more focused, authentic story about who we are, based on the Carnegie Dartlet research, that will be reflected on our website and in more than 60 customized messages to every prospective student.

If this sounds like an ambitious agenda, it is. Or should I say “audacious”? Making sure that we reach the right students who can become confident, caring and adventurous Blugolds can’t wait. Marshaling the people and resources who will help all our students succeed must be our number one priority, beginning now. Because our mission requires us to ensure that the Blugolds who enter our classrooms every day are ready and able to participate fully in all we have to offer. It requires audacity.

Audacious changes aren’t always easy, and not everyone will be in agreement with them. But these changes are a result of years of work by many across campus. They constitute our collective vision for more successful students, a vision I am confident we have the talent and energy to make a reality. I’ll be sure to continue to share with you the outcomes of our work in the months to come. I know this will be a great year for Blugolds! 

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