Enrollment dean has the nebulous task of managing students by the numbers
At first glance, it would seem that Robert Hannigan’s job has changed 180 degrees in the space of six years. He was hired in 1996 as Chico State University’s first-ever “dean of enrollment,” at a time when student numbers had slipped so low the school was losing out on state money. Now, there are too many students, and the university is trying to shove enrollment down a few notches.
Welcome to the wacky—and relatively recent—field of enrollment management.
When Hannigan was hired as vice provost for enrollment management, he was the only person in the California State University system with such a title.
“To me, it’s all part of the same process,” Hannigan said. “In enrollment management, how do you help a group of students and a university campus to work together to achieve common goals?”
Small, private schools have used professional enrollment managers for years, but most public universities in California didn’t buy in, Hannigan said, until the early to mid-1990s.
“I do know there were people wondering why we needed to do this,” he said. “We were a campus in crisis, to a degree. Our enrollment had gone down, and the budget was being cut several years in a row.”
Chico State, which peaked at 16,699 students in 1990, had plummeted to 13,797 in 1995 and was losing an average of 613 bodies a year. President Manuel Esteban called increasing enrollment by recruiting and retaining students “our highest collective priority.”
“We had to manage it more deliberately,” Hannigan said. The days of “if we build it they will come” were over, and universities had to think of enrollment management as more than just changing the admissions cutoff date from year to year.
By late 1998, applications had increased by 37 percent, and Chico State had turned the corner, leading some to wonder whether the CSU could have just waited out the decline.
But Hannigan said it’s more complex than that, and the job of enrollment management is far from over.
“As a campus, we’ve done some things that have definitely enabled us to regain some of that enrollment loss. If we had not done some things, I’m not convinced that it would have happened naturally.”
It’s not an exact science.
“From year to year, I never expect to hit it right on,” Hannigan said. Even this week, as students stream onto campus, Chico State is still not positive what the final numbers will be.
“It’s a process that’s highly dependent on all sorts of things,” he said.
Some students simply don’t show up for the first day of school, making for a decline. But enrollment can prove larger than expected if, for example, there is a higher-than-usual number of admitted students turning up for classes, or if students return whom the university thought would graduate or otherwise leave campus.
For the 2002-03 academic year, Chico State’s budget allows for the full-time equivalent of 14,345 students.
“Our goal was to be smaller—even as many as 500 students smaller” than the previous year, Hannigan said. “We need to limit the size of our class to fit our budget.” He thinks they’ll be pretty close, maybe 1 percent over the enrollment target set by the California State University system. That’s OK, because the CSU will pick up the cost of extra students up to 2 percent over the target. But last year, when Chico State was 4.5 percent over, “we taught 2 percent of that 4 percent ‘free,’ so to speak.”
“We didn’t see it coming totally,” Hannigan said. “In the end, looking back, we admitted too many.”
This year, Chico State avoided that problem by getting hardcore on admissions. “We admitted fewer students. We asked some CSU-qualified students to please make another choice.” At all levels—freshmen, graduate students, transfers and those seeking second baccalaureate degrees—the numbers were reduced. If the university were to have cut off only freshman applicants, Hannigan said, “the danger is that we could put us onto a huge roller-coaster if we take it out of the front all at once.”
All told, Chico State turned away about 1,500 students for the Fall 2002 term, compared to only 100 to 150 last year. “We have students and families who call, and they’re very anxious to be here and we’re closed,” Hannigan said.
Back in 1996, when Hannigan was hired, trend-watchers warned that the enrollment decline would be short-lived. A phenomenon called “Tidal Wave II” was reportedly on the way, bringing a nation-wide increase of 500,000 students by 2005, similar to the influx baby boomers caused in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Hannigan said Tidal Wave II is turning out to be a reality—somewhat. “They’re in the pipeline. You can see them,” he said.
But he predicts slow growth until the campus reaches its Master Plan target of 15,800 full-time-equivalent students, below the CSU-set capacity of 17,213. “As a campus, we don’t have the facilities to grow rapidly, and we are not sure the state has the resources to invest in this campus,” Hannigan said.
“Programmatically, we’re trying to manage all of the things that help students achieve their goals.” So, he said, enrollment is not just about getting bodies to come to Chico State or stay away, but also things like orientation, advising, degree persistence and building study skills.
Hannigan did say that the “quality” of the student body, if merit is measured solely by academics, is “probably” higher since the admission rules were tightened. Instead of freshmen coming in with an average high school grade point average of 3.14, this year their average GPA is 3.24.
He said even though enrollment is too high now, the university is marketing itself and seeking students. While some departments are impacted, there are others like engineering that don’t have enough students. In part because of Chico’s non-urban location, “We will always need to work to be visible in the marketplace.”
Hannigan, who meets regularly with other enrollment management specialists, said, "To some degree, we’re going to be in this business forever."