There is an emerging national trend of fewer students graduating high school, and as a result, fewer students are enrolling in college. In a recent article from The Morning Call published on Oct. 1, it was noted that “by 2026, the country is likely to begin to see a bigger dip [in high school graduates] as a result of lower birth rates since the 2008 financial crisis.”
This drop in college enrollment hits close to home for ‘Berg, as the College experienced a significant decline in enrollment with the most recent class of first-year students. Melissa Falk, Dean of Admissions & Financial Aid, Robert Springall, Vice President of Enrollment Management and Greg Mitton, Director of Financial Aid and Associate Dean of Admissions collectively described the enrollment dilemma.
“Early this summer, the Class of 2023 was on pace to have 570 or more students. What was surprising this year was the number of students, 69, who committed to Muhlenberg but who are not enrolled,” noted Falk, Springall and Mitton in a statement. “In a more typical year, that number would be around 35. In talking to counterparts at Muhlenberg’s peer institutions, our higher rate of decommits was a phenomenon experienced at many colleges like us too.”
While the College did witness a steep drop in enrollment with the Class of 2023, statistics from the past few years demonstrate that this decline has been developing for a while.
The decreasing amount of first-year students is evident within the Muhlenberg College Source Book for 2018-2019: 593 first-year students entered in Fall 2016, 564 first-year students entered in Fall 2017 and 548 first-year students entered last year, in Fall 2018. Each year, the initial class of first-year students got smaller in size.
“Muhlenberg suspects it lost students to competitors who were more assertive with merit scholarships and financial awards,” said Springall in The Morning Call article.
“In an effort to expand our recruiting footprint, we have made investments in staff members that are based in geographic areas (West and Southeast) in which the 18-year-old population is growing”
The total comprehensive fees for the Class of 2023 was $66,635. This increased from the Class of 2022 having total comprehensive fees of $64,235.
One student, who requested to remain anonymous, discussed their own reasons for transferring out of Muhlenberg at the end of their freshman year in Spring 2018. For them, they did not necessarily want to be closer to home, but rather wanted to go farther away.
“I originally chose Muhlenberg because my father pushed the school on to me as well as it being conveniently close to home,” the student revealed. “I applied to 17 schools and I would say it was near the bottom of that list. I preferred schools further away in cities where it was warm, mostly Los Angeles and a couple cities in Florida as well.”
The student also cited living in Prosser as giving them a poor first impression once they arrived to campus. As they continued into their first semester, other circumstances began contributing to their desire to transfer.
“I considered transferring even before I began freshman year,” the student explained. “I had joined clubs and activities to try to like the school and just couldn’t. Come mid-October is when I decided I needed a change for sure and began the applications process. I wanted to transfer because I was so close to home, it was cold and I wanted to be in a city. Also, Muhlenberg is not an AACSB accredited business school, so it did not make much sense for me to stay as an accounting major.”
The student noted that their financial aid package at their current school was similar to what was offered to them at ‘Berg.
“The biggest factor was location,” they added. “I only applied to schools in California and Florida, particularly those only in cities. My current school offers an accredited business program as well as the opportunity to intern in the city. I also get to plan formal events at high end venues as social chair of my organization and enjoy the occasional beach day when I am not slammed with work. The most important distinction to make is that I did not choose a school that would be fun 100 percent of the time, but one that I could enjoy myself at as well as set myself up professionally to be a successful job candidate post-graduation.”
As the student reflects on their transfer experience, the College has also been reflecting on ways that they can recruit students who may not know about Muhlenberg and what it can offer for them.
“In an effort to expand our recruiting footprint, we have made investments in staff members that are based in geographic areas (West and Southeast) in which the 18-year-old population is growing,” said Falk, Springall and Mitton. “These investments have allowed us to recruit both first-year and transfer students in outreach areas, while still recruiting heavily in our primary geographic markets.”
The College was recently featured in an article in The New York Times on Oct. 10 for their commitment to recruiting transfer students from community colleges, as they now offer a $15,000 annual scholarship from Phi Theta Kappa, the national two-year college honors society. ‘Berg also begins admitting transfer students on March 1 rather than after the May 1 first-year commitment date, according to the article.
Transfer students also have an equal opportunity to receive financial aid.
“First-year students and transfer students, upon admission, have equal access to need-based financial aid. The Office of Financial Aid uses the same review process for both groups,” indicated Falk, Springall and Mitton. “Most merit-based options, such as the College’s honors programs, are available only to incoming first-year students at this point. Early in 2019, the College instituted a merit scholarship exclusively for community college students in the national two-year college honors society, Phi Theta Kappa.”
The average financial aid package for transfer students in Fall 2019 was $33,567.
“To promote student success and retention, The College has undertaken several initiatives to support students”
While the College has been focused on increasing enrollment for first-year and transfer students, they also have been navigating how to retain students each year.
Last Fall, the Class of 2022 saw a slight drop in retention: 87.9 percent of students returned to campus, compared to 90.9 percent retention from the previous year. This year, however, the retention rate increased to 89.8 percent.
“To promote student success and retention, the College has undertaken several initiatives to support students,” explained Falk, Springall and Mitton. “Long-standing offices and services, such as the Academic Resource Center, the Emerging Leaders Program and the offices of Multicultural Life and International Student Support, have been supplemented by the CARE Team, the First-Year Experience Group and the M.U.L.E Community Cabinet to address emerging needs of students.”
The College also notes that despite these fluctuations in retention rates, they are still ultimately above average nationally. According to the U.S. Government’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data Service, 78 percent retention is the average for private, four-year colleges.
Campus leaders such as Allison Gulati, Dean of Students, have been working to maintain a steady retention rate.
“My job is to work with the team in Student Affairs to continue to look for ways that we increase sense of belonging and self-efficacy. That includes things like enhancing the orientation program, making sure RAs are really trained to support students…and build community,” explained Gulati. “And then lastly, making sure that our support services continue to help meet students’ health and well-being needs while they’re here.”
Gulati also points to Michele Paules, Student Support Services Coordinator, as having a pivotal role in assisting students.
“Her job is to work with students to connect them to support resources related to health, mental health, financial insecurity, feelings of loneliness, homesickness, dealing with family crises and things like that,” said Gulati, describing Paules’ influence. “Her job is to just help connect them to the resources and make sure that they’ve got support.”
The College held a Fall Open House last Saturday, Oct. 19, with 269 students and their families in attendance.
Out of those students, there were 188 high school seniors, 73 high school juniors, seven other high school students and one prospective transfer student, according to Falk, Springall and Mitton.
This year’s Open House experienced a 20 percent increase in attendance from last year, according to the College.
“The feedback was overwhelmingly positive about the organization and content of the program as well as the wonderful interactions with our faculty, students and staff,” they added. “We heard from many seniors that their applications to Muhlenberg will be submitted soon and that they are planning to return to campus shortly for their admissions interviews.”
Photo: The ceiling of Haas College Center, Credit: Karly McCloskey ’20 / The Muhlenberg Weekly