New MC attitude
Enrollment rising; budget crisis put in the past
After a few difficult years, Marietta College is on a fresh, improved trajectory, senior officials at the college said.
Applications and enrollments are up, the college has rebranded all its promotional materials and improved its outreach programs for contacting prospective students, said Tom Perry, executive director for the college’s office of communications and brand management.
The data posted on the Institutional Research area of the college’s website shows steady fall enrollment varying between 1,573 and 1,618 from 2007 through 2012, but in 2013 the numbers of students began to decline, dropping off to 1,224 in fall 2016. Over time, freshman cohorts dropped from a peak of 463 full-time students in fall 2007 to 284 in 2016, according to the data.
The decline precipitated a budget crisis, and in 2014 and 2015, the college lost 40 positions and staff took a cut in the college’s contributions to retirement funding. In early 2016, president Joseph Bruno resigned.
William Ruud arrived as president in July 2016. The result has been 15 months of dramatic change, Perry said.
“Morale has improved, there has been an investment to drive enrollment, which is up for the first time in five years,” Perry said, referring to the fall 2017 numbers. He said the college has traditionally enrolled 1,200 to 1,400 full-time equivalent students, and the current number is about 1,160 FTEs. According to a September admissions report, 312 freshmen were scheduled to start this year.
“There’s a sense that things are going in the right direction now,” he said.
Steve Lazowski, vice president for enrollment management, started in his position this year, bringing in experience from Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., Lake Erie College in Painesville and Baldwin-Wallace University in Berea. His job is recruiting students, and he and Ruud share a common approach: sell the college’s advantages to prospective students, and reach out to them across the board.
“Bill’s (president William Ruud’s) No.1 priority was more enrollment,” Lazowski said. “We travel more, we’ve rebranded ourselves, we’re promoting the value of our degrees and that we’re affordable.”
“I truly believe Marietta College is one of the best in the country. We’re ranked highly in many publications, but we weren’t promoting ourselves like we should,” he said.
Through a rebranding campaign engineered by Creosote Affects, a national branding and marketing firm specializing in education, the college’s publications and promotional materials, its website and its entire approach to attracting new students were overhauled.
“We ramped up our digital presence, serving banner ads on cellphones … we’ve shown 1.7 million impressions with a 1 percent open rate,” he said, noting that the open rate is well above digital advertising industry benchmarks.
“There is no silver bullet for recruitment, just many silver B.B.s, “he said.
The college faces challenges common to post-secondary schools across the country, and one unique to Marietta, but Lazowksi said Marietta also has unique strengths.
The number of high school graduates in the U.S., which has steadily increased over the past 15 years, is forecast to stagnate for at least the next five to seven years, according to a report published by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, with 81,000 fewer in 2017. Meanwhile, in 2013-14, there were 3,039 four-year degree granting colleges in the U.S., 509 more than there were 10 years prior, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
The market for students is becoming acutely more competitive for colleges.
The unpredictability of career futures has students hedging their bets with double majors and strategically selected minors, seeking an education that will offer flexibility as well as expertise in specific fields. Lazowksi said part of the recruiting strategy is pitching the college’s academic strengths to students interested in majors in those studies.
Ruud said one of the established values Marietta shares with other small private colleges is the worth of a well-rounded liberal arts education, a concept that fell into disrepute during a long period of career-focused trends but is now making a strong comeback. In a rapidly evolving economy, the ability to think clearly coupled with a solid general grounding in the arts, humanities and sciences has become the most sought-after combination, and that, along with a rich selection of career-directed majors, is what Marietta offers, he said.
“Marietta College is a hidden gem, and we weren’t selling what we have. We mostly needed to sell and tell our story,” he said.
Part of that process is getting prospective students to visit, Perry said.
“If we can get them here, we have a good chance. The campus sells itself — 90 acres, easy to navigate and we’ve invested $100 million in it since 2000,” he said. “This campus has been transformed into something exceptional.”
Justice Held, a senior student in the education program, has been conducting campus tours for prospective students and their families for more than a year. As a college ambassador, she squires at least one group — and often more — around the wooded pathways, brick buildings and open spaces every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Held said she tailors her tours to the interests of the groups, which can range from athletics to petroleum engineering.
Hazen Powell of Morgantown, W.Va., was part of a tour Monday morning and spent about an hour with two members of his family following Held as she pointed out the residential, academic and recreational high points. His interest is in the sciences, and Held paid particular attention to the Rickey, Selby and Bartlett buildings, homes to the college’s science programs.
“It was pretty cool,” he said. “This is different from the other small schools I’ve seen.”
The Edwy Rolfe Brown Building stands off the Christy Mall just up from Butler Street. Home to the petroleum engineering program, it has been simultaneously the primary driver of enrollment increases since 2000 and one of the college’s greatest vulnerabilities.
Petroleum engineering is a significant factor in the college’s enrollment, but that means that when the oil and gas industry boom-and-bust cycle hits one of its periodic lows, demand falls for the program and the effect on overall enrollment can be distressing.
“Petroleum engineering lost a lot when (oil) prices collapsed,” Perry said. “It prompted us to promote other majors.”
As Lazowski put it, “I think petroleum engineering might be tired of playing Atlas.”
Those other majors include the college’s post-grad school for physicians’ assistants and psychology, and undergrad majors in political sciences, a spectrum of arts programs, business and economics, and education, he said. A ribbon cutting today will introduce the college’s new $1 million center in McKinney Hall for music therapy, the result of a gift from alumni Donald G. and Leslie Straub Ritter. The program is scheduled to begin as a major in the fall of 2018.
The college is continually examining its curriculum in light of what prospective students are seeking.
“Our planning committee looks out for trends in demands for majors,” Perry said. “It’s a process, it has to be vetted by faculty. It can take 18 months to two years, and we also tweak and add to what we have.”
Meanwhile Ruud, who can sometimes be seen with his wife, Judy, strolling the campus and shaking hands with students and visitors while introducing their dog, Fuzzy, is rebuilding, refining and expanding the college.
“We needed energy, enthusiasm and excitement, mostly we needed to sell ourselves,” he said.
He wants to build enrollment to 1,400 through 2022, build endowments and financial support, and continue the school’s Division III athletic successes, he said. With enrollment losses arrested, the positions lost over the past two years are starting to come back, he said. Faculty positions in biology, Early American History and communications have been restored, and a 2 percent salary increase and a 1 percent increase in the college’s contribution to retirement plans went into effect this year.
“We want to get back to healthy salaries, and as we generate more income, we put ourselves in that position,” he said.
Ruud’s vision is to elevate Marietta College’s profile as a regional high point of higher education.
“When people think of I-77, I want the first thing that comes to mind to be Marietta College,” he said. “We won’t invent the cure for cancer, but we’re likely to graduate somebody who does.”
By the numbers
Marietta College historical enrollment, fall:
¯ 2005: 1,433
¯ 2006: 1,503
¯ 2007: 1,606
¯ 2008: 1,599
¯ 2009: 1,573
¯ 2010: 1,596
¯ 2011: 1,618
¯ 2012: 1,606
¯ 2013: 1,545
¯ 2014: 1,504
¯ 2015: 1,332
¯ 2016: 1,224
Source: Institutional Research data on marietta.edu
Note: Numbers are total student enrollment, including part-time and graduate school students, not full-time equivalents