Technology is Key in Transforming HBCU Enrollment Management Strategy

Presidents and chancellors in the HBCU sector face complex choices in managing serious challenges in higher education. Chief among them are student debt, financial aid access, and what types of students will be able to overcome these issues to enroll and complete degrees at our schools. To confront these issues, all of us will soon have to recognize that our choices must be made in the effort to be transformational.

Our decisions and priorities will drive the survival of our respective campuses for the next five years. They will shape the brands, processes, resource allocation strategies and metrics of our schools, and ultimately determine our individual and collective worth as leaders.

Based on my experiences, one of the primary areas where we can implement meaningful change with short and long-term benefit is in using technology in administrative and operational systems, and in our teaching and learning infrastructure.

An ideal place to launch a transformative tech strategy is in enrollment management.

Fayetteville State University (FSU) is the most diverse HBCU in North Carolina’s 17-member UNC system, which is comprised of five HBCU’s, one Minority-Serving Institution, and 11 Predominantly White institutions. Approximately 64% of our students are of color and 36% are non-minority.

Because we co-exist with a large military base in Fort Bragg, nontraditional students make up about 50% of our undergraduate population. Also, 22% of our students are military and 24% are adult. We also have the highest percentage of transfers in the system and many commuters and online learners.

Last year FSU found itself in a unique dilemma: we were losing a significant number of our students at the end of the first year, but among those who stayed, our degree-completion rate continued to rise.

I personally took a more active role in campus conversations on retention and attrition, and we began to take new approaches to our enrollment management strategies. Last summer we committed to the effective application of data analytics and artificial intelligence to our enrollment projections, and we were guided by the critical questions that we had not asked and the multiple factors to be analyzed.

Among our significant findings were:

– In response to the question: How can we maximize the positive impact of financial aid? We learned that we were spending 78% of our money on the wrong category of students to the tune of $1 million dollars!

– We learned that 8% of our students leave after one semester and 23% leave by the end of the first year. On average, students stay at FSU 2.5 semesters. The question of why became more important.

– We were challenged to analyze our data not using just the three traditional criteria – High school GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and quality of the existing high school.

– We did a thorough analysis over several years of the relative mean high school GPA compared to their GPA at FSU.

– We did a thorough analysis of our regional competitors and the number of Google searches about FSU for 2017-2018.

– We did a thorough analysis of the students’ FSU GPA and graduation rates by majors.

– The predictive model classified students who have a GPA below 2.5 (in historical data) correctly with 99.3% accuracy. The model predictors that emerged were: high school GPA, preferred major, applicant zip code, SAT score (combined), and average high school GPA from historical data.

– To determine which students could be classified into an “honor” group (GPA above 3.5). The model predictor is 93% accurate. The model predictors were high school GPA, zip code, SAT Score (combined), and average HS GPA from historical data.

We previously did not identify zip code as a critical factor, but it has emerged to be one. In other words, students who were drawn from high schools in the same zip code indicated differential success rates at FSU. In comparing the quality and quantity of our incoming class, we now know the influential factors associated with enrollees. We know the influential factors associated with students’ FSU GPA and we know the influential factors for the percentage rates of graduation.

Once students are admitted, we can ask more analytic-based questions related to student support for diverse students. Among the questions might be:

– What institutionally based information on student needs and characteristics is utilized by student support personnel?

– What specific information about student subpopulations (women, students of color, nontraditional students, etc.) is utilized by faculty and student support personnel?

– What information about student culture, faculty concerns, and campus climate is utilized by faculty and student support personnel?

– Describe a profile of the students who utilize student support services the most/least. What motivates students in each category?

– Based upon this profile what is the impact on a) grading, b) class performance, c) persistence, d) and the reduction in the percentage of D’s, F’s, W’s, and incompletes?

We must recognize that the demographics of who is coming to college no longer consist primarily of traditional-aged students from varied income levels. The influx of new students over the next 5-10 years will be older, working adults, commuters, online learners and degree seekers, parents, and the military. Thus, a new model of enrollment management must emerge that is guided by data analytics.

We must be prepared to answer the questions, “what steps have we taken to maximize the number of pathways into the university/college so that it becomes a more viable option for the new demographic of students including non-traditional students, and those who have full-time jobs and/or families to support?” Failure to address this question will have a significant impact on enrollment which in turn affects persistence and the financial bottom line of the institution.

HBCU and MSI presidents and chancellors have little choice but to embrace transformational planning and implementation to survive in the 21st century. The cost of not doing some may lead to some harmful consequences as they lose their competitive edge, and possibly, campuses outright.

Dr. James A. Anderson is Chancellor of Fayetteville State University.

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