"Planning Issues: Attracting and Retaining Undergraduates"

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November 2004


Cindy Hall, Director, Department of University Marketing

Randy Deike, Assistant Vice Provost for Enrollment Management and Director of Undergraduate Admissions

Andrea Dowhower, Senior Analyst and Director for Student Affairs Research & Assessment

Debora Cheney, Larry and Ellen Foster Communications Librarian and Chair of the Commission for Adult Learners

Vibrant and robust undergraduate programs are central to Penn State ’s future success, and recruitment and retention of undergraduates are important considerations as budget units think strategically about plans for the period 2005/06 through 2007/08. Continuing the 2004-05 Quality Advocates’ series on planning issues, on Friday, November 19 four Penn State experts shared information on current research and practice related to undergraduate recruitment and retention.

Cindy Hall, director, Department of University Marketing opened the session with a look at Penn State ’s current marketing campaign. Hall described the current campaign as a “branding campaign” targeted at the campus college locations. The current campaign is one of the first at Penn State to assess its results. Discussions held with approximately 800 high school seniors to assess awareness, perceptions of Penn State , and recall indicated that the campaign has been pretty effective.

Hall shared two video spots from the campaign. These spots are currently running on a number of cable TV channels including MTV, ESPN, and Comedy Central. In addition, the campaign features radio spots, mostly in the regions surrounding the campus college locations, and the “goahead” Web site. The message of the campaign has been developed with input from the First-Year Experience Committee and emphasizes the “lifestyle” at Penn State . [View Cindy Hall’s slides][PDF]

Debora Cheney, Larry and Ellen Foster Communications Librarian and chair of the Commission for Adult Learners, offered the group some insight into the adult learner population. Cheney described several “myths” surrounding the adult learner population including that adult learners are going to school part-time, that they take mostly continuing education (CE) credits, and that they are mostly interested in associates degree or certificate programs. According to Cheney, this is not typical of an adult learner at Penn State .

The “myths” about the adult learner population can create challenges for adult learner students. For example, even though a typical adult learner is going to school full-time, taking resident instruction (RI) courses, and enrolled in a baccalaureate degree program, adult learners are more likely to apply in the spring semester. As a consequence, most adult learners are paying their expenses out of personal savings, since most of the available financial aid is gone by the time they apply.

The challenges for adult learners often carry over to their student experience. Adult learners frequently encounter teaching styles that do not take into consideration their special needs, for example, team or group projects that require a significant amount of time outside of the classroom to complete. Cheney urged the University community to understand how the University’s various delivery arms such as resident instruction, Continuing Education, and the World Campus can be quilted together to make them work for our student population rather than assuming that a particular student population prefers a single delivery arm.

Andrea Dowhower, senior analyst and director for Student Affairs Research & Assessment, shared some of the results of the recent Student Satisfaction survey. Among the highlights: students report spending more time per week on homework; on average, students at University Park spend about 66% less time working than students at the other locations; students at the campus college locations are more likely to know a faculty or staff member well enough to ask for a recommendation.

Dowhower also presented some highlights of a Penn State PULSE survey of new students conducted in September 2004. Respondents overall impressions indicated that 92% were satisfied with their experiences at Penn State and that 96% would probably or definitely choose Penn State again. Students also reported feeling a strong sense of connectedness. However, Dowhower reported that there were differences for students of color and other target populations.

More detailed results from both surveys are provided in [Andrea Dowhower’s slides][PDF]

Randy Deike, assistant vice provost for Enrollment Management and director of Undergraduate Admissions, presented the outlook for recruitment from the perspective of Undergraduate Admissions. Deike began by recognizing the challenge of recruiting to a diverse student population and trying to keep a “single institution” image. Deike also cited several challenges in the current recruitment situation, including: a decline in Pennsylvania high school graduates; increased competition with community colleges as a result of the increasing cost of Penn State; and a decline in the number of international applicants. Deike suggested articulating the value of a Penn State degree to overcome the cost and competition challenges. Deike also pointed out that recent Penn State applicants have better credentials than in the past. This is both good news and bad news, as it tends to translate into fewer referrals to the campus college locations.
[View Randy Deike’s slides] [PDF]

In the Q&A that followed, the presenters were asked how you articulate the value of Penn State in the recruiting process. Randy Deike mentioned that the Admissions Office is scripting ways that people can describe the benefits of a Penn State degree. Cindy Hall cited a teen survey in which 33% of respondents cited Penn State as the top university in the state. Hall also pointed out that 46% of respondents reported looking at college or university Web sites. Deike mentioned that the Admissions Web site has been redesigned. The panel also indicated that students want to hear from students and emphasized the importance of conveying “the student experience.” Cheney reminded the group that the same kind of things should be done with a focus on adult learners as well.

In response to a question concerning how to address differences in the value of a Penn State degree at various Penn State locations, panelists suggested focusing on the long-term value of a Penn State degree—career, friendships, and the alumni association. Andrea Dowhower also pointed out that the data reflect differences in student demographics at the various locations but that this is not necessarily reflective of the service or quality of the location.

One attendee asked the panel if Penn State is looking at the current articulation agreements with community colleges. The panelists acknowledged that Penn State has significant competition from community colleges in each county and that students are being counseled to start at a community college and then transfer to Penn State . However, Randy Deike stated that he would rather have a student do that then to never attend Penn State .

The final question of the session asked panelists for advice on how to “mesh” all of these things together. The panel acknowledged that it is a significant challenge and that the University is working hard to “integrate our message.” Andrea Dowhower emphasized the importance of doing whatever we can to create a positive student experience for our existing students.

The Quality Advocates Network meets several times each semester to share ideas and examples of improvement and change. To join the Quality Advocates Network mailing list or to learn more about the meetings scheduled, contact the staff at psupia@psu.edu.

The Quality Advocates Network is open to all Penn State faculty, staff, administrators, and students.