At a Board of Regents meeting last fall, University Provost Martha Pollack expressed frustration with the University’s trend of enrolling too many students.
“We have been over-enrolling every year for the past five years and we have to stop this,” Pollack said at the time. “I'm not happy about it.”
Pollack called for a plan to curb over-enrollment, and according to enrollment figures released last month for the 2015 freshman class, those plans worked.
The report revealed the University enrolled 6,071 students in this year’s freshman class, down considerably from the 6,505 freshmen enrolled in fall 2014. Here’s how the University did it.
A growing problem
Last year the University enrolled 6,532 freshman, an increase of 307 students from the previous year, and more than 500 students more than the institution was planning to enroll.
To accommodate the larger class size, LSA added 41 new class sections for the fall semester and 45 additional class sections for the winter semester, and the College of Engineering hired new instructors to teach additional discussion sections for first-year courses.
Administrators also had to manage a housing shortage, which was a result of both over-enrollment and the closure of West Quadrangle for renovation. To ensure incoming freshman could live in on-campus residence halls, the University provided returning students incentives to live off campus.
From 2009 to 2014, the University’s freshman enrollment remained well over 6,000 students. Part of the initial uptick in applications was attributed to the University’s 2010 decision to join the Common App, an online undergraduate college application which allows students to apply to any of the 622 member schools.
Within the University’s first year as a Common App member, undergraduate applications to the institution rose by 25 percent. Ted Spencer, associate vice provost and executive director of undergraduate admissions at the time, said though the University received more applications than ever during that first year, its yield was the lowest since 2006. Yield refers to the number of admitted students who actually end up enrolling at the University.
Spencer said because students submitting the Common App can apply to an increased number of schools with greater ease, it can be difficult to calculate yield.
“We admitted a slightly larger class this year … because we weren’t certain whether a lot of the students who did apply and had a strong resume would yield at the same rate,” he said.
The University’s recent issues with over-enrollment, however, defied national trends. According to the United States Census Bureau, from 2011 to 2013, undergraduate college enrollment decreased by 930,000 students, the largest drop since the bureau began collecting college enrollment data in 1966.
Michigan State University, which aims to enroll a total of 50,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional students, has not struggled in recent years to enroll a target class size. Since peaking at 10,132 undergraduates in 2012, the university’s freshman class has fluctuated close to 9,500 students over the past few years.
There are notable differences between the way the two schools approach admissions. For one, Michigan State is not a member of the Common App.
John Gaboury, Michigan State’s associate provost for academic services and enrollment management, said not accepting the Common App makes it easier to estimate yield rates.
“We’re not on the Common App, and last year we had over 35,000 applications,” Gaboury said. “In our calculations, people are specifically selecting Michigan State. So we know in our probabilities it isn’t just ‘Oh I could send this out to 20 schools and see what happens,' so it makes a difference when you’re running your probability models and affects your yield rate.”
In addition, Michigan State enrolls far more in-state students. Gaboury said the school aims for in-state students to make up 70 percent of its total enrolled class, while Fall 2015 enrollment reports show that approximately 57 percent of the University’s student body is comprised of in-state students.
Gaboury anticipates Michigan State will uphold current enrollment practices in the years to come.
“We’re going to stick with a similar strategy,” he said, noting the school’s success in enrolling a diverse student body. “We have the largest number of African-American students in our freshman class of any of the Big Ten institutions. We’re about 653 for this year.”
To combat over-enrollment at the University, the regents appointed Kedra Ishop, a longtime admissions official at the University of Texas at Austin, as the University’s first associate vice president for enrollment management. Ishop assumed the position at the beginning of the 2014-2015 academic year.
Ishop said her first task was to determine a target number for the fall 2015 freshman class.
“It wasn’t necessarily a question of going up or down, it was let’s establish a target as a ceiling, as opposed to a floor,” Ishop said. “And there’s different approaches when your target is a ceiling and you don’t go over it, and your target is a floor and you don’t go under it. The floor generally has more to do with budget, since your institution is funded on your number of students. So being tasked to bring the class in on target and determining what that target was, and at the time it was just under 6,000.”
After establishing a target, Ishop said she began to evaluate how the University was releasing its decisions. Those applying for undergraduate admission to the University can apply either early action or regular decision. Early action applications are due Nov. 1 and decisions are released at some point before Dec. 24, while regular decision applications are due Feb. 1 and decisions are released in early April.
Ishop said students who are admitted from the early action pool tend to enroll at the University. Therefore, to manage enrollment more effectively, the admissions office deferred more students from early action to regular decision than in years past.
“Early action here typically results in an enrollment, so we knew that if we released more then we’d have more enrollments, which means we’d have fewer spaces to offer during the regular term,” she said. “That was a mechanism to control the size of the class, essentially not to over-promise on the front end.”
Another mechanism the University used to control the enrollment was to put more students on the waitlist. In recent years, due to over-enrollment, students on the waitlist have not been offered admission to the University. Despite offering admission to 2,000 fewer students in 2015 than the previous year, a 2-percent increase in yield meant the University once again did not pull students from the waitlist.
From 2014 to 2015, the University’s admittance rate dropped from 32.2 percent to 26.2 percent, a trend Ishop expects to continue.
“As the application numbers continue to grow, regardless what we do with class size, we’re not going to keep up class size with the pace of growth in the applicant pool,” she said. “It’s also important to note that class size is a yearly determination, so making the decision for the class that it was last year was contingent upon what we had seen in the year past and how we wanted to stage ourselves for thinking about admissions and our targets, not on an annual basis but collectively where are we as an institution in terms of capacity and what does that need to look like in terms of our capacity.”
Ishop also said it is unlikely that the number of applications the University receives will decline any time soon. She said this trend is not tied to the Common App, and instead pointed to decreasing admit rates across the country.
“I won’t attribute it necessarily to Common App,” she said. “I will attribute it to, because admit rates are going down, students are hedging their bets. It’s our responsibility, when we’re recruiting, we try to be very transparent about that process and about that likelihood. We also have additional aspects of our application, so the student has to go a few extra steps to apply here. And what they talk about in their essays matters.”
In addition to a smaller overall freshman enrollment over previous years, this year’s freshman class had the highest percentage of underrepresented minorities since 2005, the year before affirmative action was banned in the state of Michigan. This year, 12.8 percent of the freshman class is comprised of underrepresented minorities, as compared to last year’s 9.9 percent.
Ishop attributed this rise not just to new enrollment techniques, but also to the University-wide efforts to diversify the student body, such as packaging financial aid and admissions decisions together in an effort to help low-income students better plan for the costs of college.
“I think controlling the class size is a part of that, but there are tremendous efforts by the campus,” she said. “The colleges and schools, the offices of admission and financial aid to really have full-court-press in the yield cycle to get the students we wanted to actually accept our offer of admission.”