Eastern looks to retention efforts following increase in enrollment

Analicia Haynes, Editor-in-Chief

With enrollment up by 7.1 percent, with a total head count of 7,526 students compared to last year’s number of 7,030, Eastern is taking steps to retain students in order to continue to grow enrollment after the release of Tenth Day Enrollment numbers.

These steps include revamping the merit scholarship model students receive based on their high school academic performance and continued efforts from Housing and Dining.

Paul McCann, the interim vice president for business affairs, said the increase in enrollment compared to last year as well as the 24.5 percent increase in freshmen enrollment is something to be excited about, but the total number of incoming students still does not match the total number of graduating students.

But growing enrollment is a steady and slow climb that Josh Norman, the associate vice president for enrollment management, said would be accomplished over the course of ten years.

Norman said the goal is to have anywhere between 9,000 and 10,000 students enrolled on campus, and McCann said the goal is to also have the number of incoming students match the number of students graduating.

Norman said this goal is developed over a ten-year strategic data plan that was initiated in 2017.

The plan, Norman said, looks at data, such as data received from college choice surveys given out to current admitted students asking them about their college choice, including why they did not choose Eastern.

Norman said data such as that collected from these surveys helps determine what Eastern needs to do to enroll students and keep them.

“What we’re focused on is not the overall enrollment number,” Norman said. “We’re focused on the retention rates, the graduation rates. Above all else, we want to see students walk across that stage. We want them to go out and change the world.”

Retention Matters

Since enrollment has increased, Norman said the next steps focus on retention because he said “retention matters.”

But when trying to figure out how to help retention efforts, Norman said he looks at the reasons why students turn down Eastern, among other things.

“The best data comes from students who aren’t coming here, and they tell us why,” Norman said.

Three reasons that students cite every year as the reason why they did not come to Eastern are what their financial aid package is, the quality of programs on campus and how far or close Eastern is to home, Norman said.

Norman called these reasons polarizing because the indicators that factor into why a student does not receive a bigger financial aid package, for instance, are not static and varies depending on the individual student.

But Norman said by using this data, Eastern was able to “gut” its original merit scholarship model that relied just as much on ACT score as it did someone’s GPA and switched it so students have a better chance.

“The GPA has such a higher correlation to higher retention and graduation rates,” Norman said. “Why are we putting an equal focus on a standardized test scores?”

The new model has a base ACT score of 20, which Norman said was the number needed to “far exceed the national average for retention and graduation rates.”

Then, the student’s GPA determines the amount of scholarship they receive, he said.

For instance, according to the “Merit Scholarship Matrix,” located on Eastern’s website, if a student has a 3.5 GPA or higher with a 20+ ACT score (SAT equivalent) then they would receive 4,000 annually (this is the highest tier in the model).   

Director of Admissions Kelly Miller said GPA is the best predictor of retention with students coming in because it reflects their work ethic, so that’s why they revamped the scholarship system, to make it available to more students by putting more emphasis on what the university knows is an indicator to student retention and success.

“There is not a scholarship model like it in the state of Illinois,” Norman said.

Norman said there are still presidential scholarships and other scholarship opportunities, but when it comes to the merit scholarship, he said it’s a way to still attract those students who are awesome and will not be limited by a test score.

Aside from the new merit scholarship model, Miller said the new scholarship search engine is another way to keep students on campus because they have access to more scholarships, and therefore that is “free money” for them.

Also, Miller said the new academic programs on campus attract and keep students as well as Eastern’s new marketing campaign.

She said Eastern’s marketing presence was important to not only attract students but also keep them because “it’s telling people that we’re not going anywhere.”

Housing and Dining’s Role

Mark Hudson, the director of Housing and Dining, said the increase in enrollment was a nice gain for the university.

He said this increase creates a building block for the university to continue to retain the percentage of new students and eventually grow it.

When it comes to retention efforts, Hudson said Housing and Dining focuses on what students’ needs are, and they do this by “selective investments.”

He said they are working on investing in the campus environment one investment at a time, such as remodeling the patio spaces outside of Thomas and Taylor Halls.

“We want (the campus) curb appeal to match the quality of Eastern,” Hudson said.

Hudson said by making investments like this, they are not only able to make a good impression on current students but it leaves a lasting impression on prospective students and sets the tone for future recruitment efforts.

Hudson also said the partnership with students who live on campus helps maintain retention as well because of the academic success the students achieve.

Hudson said they want to make sure students are staying on campus because of all the available academic resources they have to help with their success.

“We have to make sure we continue to provide the level of service students deserve for making an investment with Eastern,” Hudson said.

He said when students do not feel a campus connection it makes them less likely to stay.

Analicia Haynes can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].