Seeking students, administration flies to China

by Ellen Rossow

MSUM administrators are trying to fix the university’s admissions and enrollment woes using some unconventional methods.

In recent years, MSUM has seen steadily declining enrollment. Falling significantly from more than 9,000 students in its heyday, fall’s enrollment numbers were less than 6,000.

With a goal of increasing enrollment back to at least 7,500 students, campus officials have been developing creative ways of reaching out to potential students.

The administration has considered several ways to raise enrollment, like initiatives to increase the number of international students at MSUM. This winter, faculty and administrators traveled to South Korea and China to discuss and finalize efforts to bring Asian students to Moorhead.

While traveling with the group, Interim Dean of Arts, Media & Communication Denise Gorsline, kept a blog called “Dragon Tales,” which documented the group’s journey, detailing new food, new places and, most importantly, the future of international study at MSUM.

In the blog, Gorsline recounted her experience at the Guilin University of Electronic Technology in the Guangxi region of China.

“There were many great things about Guilin, but the highlight was our discussion about the agreement we are entering into with them,” she wrote. “Dan Brekke made great progress on the computer science program, and there is also great interest in some form of graphic communications/design.”

Gorsline wrote that many Guilin University students expressed interest in attending a U.S. university.

“I think we can be that university,” she wrote. “They liked our small class sizes, our program content, our CASE award-winning professors and our value.”

Back on American soil, the agreements with foreign universities are progressing on schedule. The plan with Guilin is pending Chinese government approval, and other proposed agreements, like a faculty and student exchange with Shanghai Finance University and a study abroad program with Seoul National University of Education, are in the works.

When the trip was unveiled, discussion arose about the effectiveness of using funds in that way. After a Student Senate meeting to discuss finances Jan. 21, Executive Director for Communications and Marketing David Wahlberg explained that although the trip’s $35,000 cost seems like a large sum, the funds are easily returned if the trip brings even a few international students to MSUM.

Still, though international students are considered an integral part of MSUM’s identity, they cannot be solely responsible for fixing enrollment issues. Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Joseph Bessie detailed a list of ways MSUM is looking to encourage new students to enroll aside from the China venture.

Implementing new programs

MSUM is looking to hire a dean of online and extended learning to strengthen the university’s online presence, online course availability and online program implementation.

“It’s no longer the way of the future,” Bessie said. “It’s here and now.”

While at one point, faculty and administration weren’t supportive of online coursework, they now embrace it. In fact, data shows that MSUM ranks high in the MNSCU system in terms of online credit availability, second only to MSU, Mankato.

“It facilitates learning, but it also facilitates other people who want higher education who couldn’t come to campus or are not traditionally aged or have other limitations of their physical circumstances,” Bessie said. “It brings education to them. That’s a big part of it, increasing access.”

Increased access would mean not only adding more online courses, but online-based programs as well.

Bessie said administration is considering the addition of entirely new programs like engineering, though they would require significant financial backing.

“Faculty in those disciplines come at very high salaries, so we would have to be able to afford to attract them, and then you have to have extensive equipment and facilities,” he said.

New programming is a consideration for MSUM’s graduate studies as well.

“One of our great strengths is teacher education, so we are looking at what additional credentials could be offered at the graduate level,” Bessie said.

Graduate programs are a source of pride for MSUM, with this spring’s enrollment numbers being the highest in history.

“We have enrolled a record-setting 612 graduate students,” President Anne Blackhurst wrote in a recent email. “Graduate enrollment is up 13 percent compared to spring 2015 and 24 percent compared to spring 2014.”

Revision of recruiting & promotional efforts

Though Bessie said the school has a strong reputation, promotional efforts have lacked in the past.

“We need to find ways to better promote information about our school, even regionally,” Bessie said.

Some of our strongest programs at MSUM don’t get the recognition they deserve or need to thrive.

“There are some areas where we are really strong and people for some reason didn’t know that that program was here,” Bessie said.

A promotional element being modified is the purchase of names of prospective students from companies like ACT.

“We are being more strategic about the students we get and the number of students we get from those lists,” he said.

Additionally, “very conscious steps” are being taken to make sure MSUM gets “out there just like any other school.” MSUM is specifically conscious of NDSU and Concordia’s moves in courting prospective students.

“There may be ways that NDSU has to get people in North Dakota that we don’t have,” he said.

MSUM has also implemented the #BeADragon campaign and its corresponding scholarship. Prospective students are encouraged to use the hashtag on social media for a chance to win scholarships. Current Dragons are also encouraged to use the hashtag to promote Dragon Pride. 

Still, an administrative challenge is understanding what prospective students want in a school to begin with. While some are attracted to specific programs, various factors, like family and friends, also play a role in decision-making.

“It’s a very difficult problem, and it doesn’t have a solution that you could program a computer to figure out for you,” Bessie said.

The solution may be found in new hires. After former Vice President Yvette Underdue Murph’s resignation, the position of head of admissions has been left open. Director of Athletics Doug Peters is currently serving as interim. Though Peters is “doing incredibly well,” it’s anticipated the new hire would start July 1, opening doors to a “bigger and brighter” operations. 

“It’s been advertised. It’s out there,” Bessie said. “We have a number of applicants for it.”

Another position, the role of associate vice president for enrollment management, will be hired as well. This person will be in charge of MSUM’s recruiting strategies.

A national issue

MSUM’s primary struggle is one most public U.S. universities share — a lack of funding.

“There are fewer students and a lot more competition, and states have a lot less money to give their universities,” Bessie said. “State universities have had to start behaving more like private universities in the way they promote their programs and the way they recruit students and do their fundraising.”

The nation-wide issue has Bessie saying “we all find ourselves in the same predicament,” with an ultimate solution to be determined.

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