Building Our Community of Students: Enrollment Management

Dickinson seeks students whose abilities, attitudes and attributes match the college’s vision. Our students must be academically able, intellectually curious and ready to join with others in making the most of the opportunities Dickinson offers for learning and engagement. Collectively, they must be diverse in background, perspectives, interests and skills. Moreover, the college requires a student body that simultaneously includes those whose families have the resources to support the cost of a Dickinson education and those for whom financial aid is required to ensure access. In regard to size of the student body, current enrollment—2,200 to 2,300—is optimal from the standpoint of Dickinson’s program, facilities and infrastructure, and finances.

SP III recognizes that there are currently formidable challenges to achieving these goals. In terms of geography, the proportion of high-school-age students in Dickinson’s traditional primary pool (the Northeast) is declining, while the proportion in newer areas to us (especially the South and West) is rapidly increasing. Moreover, the population of students of color—historically inadequately represented in the college’s recruitment pool—is rising. Diversity is critical to our stature as a national liberal arts college, both because it enhances the learning environment and because highly talented students desire it as a minimum requirement in their college search. Most fundamentally, it is essential to our mission of educating students for a 21st-century democracy.

In regard to finances, the current economic instability has diminished both the real and perceived ability of families to afford a private college education. Requests for no-need aid are expected to increase as families look for a subsidy to offset the cost of attendance. Meeting such requests will contribute to Dickinson’s competitiveness but also further press our aid budget.

Lastly, in the past decade Dickinson has entered a new college peer group, where we are committed to remain permanently. This group’s prestige is matched by its considerable resources, which many if not all seem willing to deploy in what has been aptly characterized as an “arms race” to recruit desired prospective students and maintain admit rates lower than ours. Dickinson must work creatively to stay competitive in this highly selective tier.

In order to meet these challenges, Dickinson requires a strategic approach to enrollment that meets student needs, responds to changing demography, makes effective use of financial aid and achieves both selectivity and diversity in the admitted student pool.

Strategic Goal A:  We must sustain and strengthen selectivity by increasing the quality of applicants and by improving the college’s yield rate. Dickinson needs to strengthen its position as a first-choice college. This will require continuous attention to the fit between our academic offerings and the interests/goals of prospective students, the vibrancy of our student life program and the quality of the college’s facilities. It also means special attention to the following elements of enrollment management. 

Objective 1.  Despite the high percentage of our students who enroll early decision (42-46 percent over the last five years), admitted student surveys indicate that Dickinson is not the first choice for many of our current students. We expected that yield rate would decrease given the more selective colleges with which we now compete, but our rate should be higher than the 24-27 percent achieved the last five years. We need to identify who are we not reaching or enrolling and why.

Objective 2. Academic quality: Dickinson’s strategy over the last five years has been to invest in no-need and need-based financial aid to influence enrollment of the top 10-15 percent of the admitted pool, top-performing students with considerable choice among the most selective colleges. Without ignoring this segment, we need to identify other parts of the pool where we can have greater success. Investment must be made in the upper end of the mid-50 percent of the pool to increase the overall quality of the class. Average SAT scores have ranged from 1275 to 1298 over the last five years; that quality should be sustained and improved with this strategy. The percentage graduating in the top 10% of their high school classes has ranged from 37 to 53 percent over the last five years—a target of over 50 percent should be achieved.

Objective 3.  A high retention rate is a quality indicator of the most selective liberal arts colleges. As  more students select Dickinson as their first choice, we expect to see an increase in first-to-second year retention. For every point we improve retention, we gain approximately seven students per class or approximately 25 students over four classes (counting some further attrition). Our goal for first- to second-year retention should be 93 percent.

Strategic Goal B: We must continue to grow interest in admission to and attendance at Dickinson. A key element in this effort will be reshaping our geographic and demographic reach according to national and international shifts in prospective student pools. 

Objective 1. National Geography: Since 2003, the ratio of admitted students from outside the Northeast has grown from 12 to 22 percent. Dickinson’s rising stature positions us to increase our yield from these states.  As the proportion of high-school-age students grows especially in the South and the West, we must enlarge the proportion of students coming from outside our traditional primary pool. Strategic Plan II established a target of 30 percent for areas outside the Northeast (VA-ME); that remains our goal. Continued growth should be achieved in emerging areas with a growing Dickinson footprint (Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Denver, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill, Chicago and Minneapolis). We also must optimize enrollment in relatively nearby urban areas such as Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston, and also in western New York, western Massachusetts and western Maryland (where we have not had an intentional presence in the last decade).

Objective 2. Diversity: The ratio of students of color in the national school-age cohort is rising rapidly, and Dickinson has made notable strides in raising their representation. Our goal for the next five years is 12 percent or better, sustaining and improving on our recent progress. To do so, we must increase our wealth and/or reach into those highly sought-after sectors of students of color with both high academic ability and means to pay all or a significant portion of tuition. In addition, there are segments of the Jewish student population whom we have not reached. Dickinson provides key requirements for many Jewish students: a robust Judaic Studies curriculum, a nationally-recognized Hillel and ties with Israeli universities and the South American Jewish community. With a kosher dining option now added, we should be able to reach new segments of the Jewish population. 

Objective 3.  International Reach: The proportion of international students at Dickinson has grown from under 3 percent to over 6 percent since 2003, a change fitting our position of global education leadership. Dickinson’s international applicant pool reached a record high in 2010, and we expect that it will continue to grow given the turnaround in the global economy. We also expect that the percentage of students able to pay the full or nearly full cost of attendance can and will increase. This will be needed to offset our aid commitment to those need-eligible. Regions of interest include Europe, Asia and South America. Our goal is to reach 8 percent international in the next five years.

Objective 4.  As the traditional four-year secondary school model of transition to college changes, Dickinson must reach students taking non-traditional paths. This includes both the front end (accelerated high-school degree) and back end (gap year[s] before entry) of transition from secondary school. As we develop our community college partnerships, Public Service Fellowships and participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, we must respond to new enrollment patterns and points of entry by identifying how we integrate students arriving via new avenues into our four-year model.

Objective 5.  Dickinson’s connections with the U.S. military, including strong ROTC and cooperation with the Army War College, may create an enrollment niche for us. Strategies should be developed to reach students drawn to a college that combines interest in the military with the liberal arts tradition. These include veterans and children of families with a service tradition. The development of the security studies certificate is an example of a program differentiator with projected recruiting appeal.

Strategic Goal C: Our recruitment strategy must optimize the relationships among students’ actual and perceived financial needs, the college’s financial resources and macro-economic trends. 

Objective 1. Financial aid continues to be important in providing access to our student body: 59 percent of the Class of 2013 received institutional aid with an average institutional grant of $22,853. Although the college made strides in reducing no-need awards over the last five years, this form of aid is expected to increase going forward. Tuition discounting reached record-high levels at private colleges and universities in 2008; the average discount rate for first-year students increased from 39 percent in fall 2007 to 42 percent in fall 2008 and an estimated 42.4 percent for fall 2009. Dickinson’s increase in the first-year tuition discount rate (38.6 percent for FY10 to 41.6 percent for FY11) remains below the national average but is much higher than in the past (a first-year class low of 28 percent for FY07). We must achieve a discount rate that is both competitive in recruiting and realistic in regard to our resources, especially as we anticipate greater socioeconomic diversity within our current and prospective student population.

Objective 2.  The college is committed to providing access for students who have the potential to succeed at Dickinson and who will enhance the value of the shared Dickinson experience. We must recognize, however, that our ability to support students in need is linked directly to our ability to recruit students from families that are near-pay or full-pay. We need to continue to develop strategies that protect and ideally expand our pool of students/families with the capacity and willingness to bear the costs of a Dickinson education, even in uncertain economic times.

Objective 3.  Currently, net tuition and student room and board revenues fund more than 80 percent of the operating budget. As a result, major increases in aid must be covered by decreases in operating expenses or equivalent increases in other revenues. Funding the quality of our academic and residential experience while providing access to families with greater demonstrated need probably represents the biggest financial challenge the college will face in the coming decade. A critically important avenue for us to follow in meeting this challenge—one already well traveled by virtually all of our peer and aspirant schools—is fundraising for financial aid, particularly through endowment. SP III sets a goal of bringing the amount of aid at Dickinson funded by the endowment to $5 million by 2015.

Strategic Goal D:  In all of our recruitment efforts, we constantly need to use competitive recruitment tools. 

Objective 1. Continue to use data to develop and expand the annual applicant pool ensuring that the depth and breadth of characteristics required to build and shape a class are present. Dickinson’s senior inquiry pool has grown to over 30,000 inquiries. Measuring affinity and developing strategies to determine which inquiries are most likely to become applicants are critical to expanding the applicant pool. Strong technology resources are required to improve and remain competitive.

Objective 2. In regard to geography, alumni and parent volunteers have been and will continue to be keys to success in expanding Dickinson’s admissions footprint. Appeal can also be broadened by ensuring that students from outside our primary region recognize the portability of the Dickinson degree to return to their home region for careers or graduate and professional school. 

Objective 3. In regard to diversity and urban recruitment, opportunities include expanded relationships with community-based organizations (CBOs). These identify students in under-served high schools with the skills and desire for success in a highly selective college setting. Our work with CBOs can broaden diversity in terms of both students of color and socioeconomic background. For international students, a strong relationship and recruiting model comprised of targeted American and international schools abroad, as well as alumni volunteers and the availability of financial aid to highly talented students, will enable the college to continue to grow recruitment. Lastly, we must continue to develop relationships with independent schools across the board.

Objective 4. From the admissions process to classroom interaction and social networking, today’s students expect and demand a high level of up-to-the-minute technology and new media. It will be critical, for example, that we optimize and leverage internet and interactive capabilities in recruitment. And that we offer an educational program that includes a vibrant and visible technology dimension.