BY CORIE LYNN
Growth has been FHSU’s mindset over the last few years. The campus has grown as new buildings spring up. The student population has grown through the University’s various programs.
But this fall, almost two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment declined.
In an email sent by University President Tisa Mason, the student headcount fell 6% from last fall, affecting the traditional student population, Kansas Academy of Mathematics and Science students and international partnership students.
According to Dr. Dennis King, the associate vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, the university anticipated the dip in international students due to changes within China relating to the universities there.
The on-campus dip was anticipated, too, as students were less willing to travel in the context of the pandemic.
“People generally stay closer to home,” King said. “Underserved populations weren’t applying at the same rate, so we knew that we were going to have the on campus challenges as well.”
Though almost every Kansas regent university has experienced similar enrollment issues, King views FHSU’s decline as being impacted by online programming. Whereas FSHU was a field leader through FHSU Online, the university now sees competitors through the need to go virtual.
But FHSU is already taking steps to address enrollment.
“[In] the growth plan that we have in place, we’ve expanded tuition to a regional tuition model instead of an in-state, so basically the in-state model will cover 13 states,” King said.
Scholarships for out-of-state scholarships also changed.
Though FHSU changed this model prior to the pandemic, it allows scholarships to be awarded to students based on GPA rather than the ACT, which allows students who did not have the chance to take the test to still receive a scholarship.
King explains with the changes to address out-of-state students, the university has expanded the locations of their admissions counselors. Potential students can now meet with these counselors outside of Hays.
“Now we have one [regional couselor] in Kansas City, one in Lawton, Okl., and one in Denver. They can provide a better, more consistent engagement with students in those areas,” he said.
Though the university is hoping to meet with potential students in person, they have also worked to strengthen their marketing strategy, specifically toward parents and school counselors and potential online students.
“We have some other pieces that will go out, and we’ll engage students on a more regular basis than we have in the past,” King said. “You’ll see a new look to the front page of the website in the next few weeks.”
Though these steps are directly addressing enrollment growth, Scott Cason, FHSU’s chief communications officer, explained that they fall into the university’s five-year strategic plan.
“While Goal #3 of the plan focuses on strategic enrollment growth and bringing more diversity to our workforce, each of the other four goals focuses on strengthening the quality and overall value of the FHSU experience for all students, faculty, and staff,” Cason said.
The recently opened Fischli-Wills Center for Student Success also falls into the strategic plan, as it was created with the intent of providing for every need under one roof. In doing so, FHSU hopes to better assist and retain its students.
Because the university anticipated the enrollment decline, Cason explains that it also budgeted this year to address the accompanying revenue decline by reducing Other Operating Expenses.
Even early on, FHSU is seeing the positive results of the steps it has taken.
For instance, a record number of students graduated last year. According to King, the total was 4100 students in 2020 compared to 3800 the previous year.
A virtual tour, which was added to the FHSU website at the end of September, also has seen a high amount of traffic and even led to more enrollment applications. This new tool is essential for drawing out-of-state students who may not be able to visit in person.
“We’re always the hidden gem. We hear that all the time,” King said. “What we have to do is get people here. Our yield rate, enrollment rate when somebody visits campus is 11% higher than the national average because when they come here, they see Fort Hays and they’re amazed.”
In addition, Tiger Day, which brings high school students and their families to visit the campus, was up 250 from its average of 220 attendees. The admissions department is so busy that King has also offered to give campus tours.
To cap it all off, the freshman class is also up, and FHSU had its highest ever student retention rate last year.
As FHSU continues to address the enrollment, King explained that the goal of doing so benefits the students as well as the university.
There is a greater network of alumni for current students to work with, and having already worked with a diverse group helps a student’s ability to work with a diverse team in the future.
“Not only is the campus vibrant, but it helps with opportunities just being here,” King said. “[Students can find] people to relate with, but it also helps after you graduate as well, having a network.”