College Administrators Tackle Student Enrollment Problems

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This week in Los Angeles, college and university administrators from around the country tackled a vexing issue in higher education: how to open the doors to more students and keep them enrolled. KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has the story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Public and private universities and colleges are struggling to keep up with the United States' demographic changes. USC is no exception, vice provost Jerry Lucido told the conference. This year, he said, USC's admitted more impoverished students who qualify for financial aid, such as Pell grants. That's not the only surprise.

Jerry Lucido: I will tell you that our freshman class will in fact be less than 50 percent white this year; that's usually shocking to folks who have known our institution. You know, seventeen percent of our undergraduate population is Pell eligible; that's usually shocking to students, to folks who know about our institution.

Guzman-Lopez: Does that mean detractors can't call USC the "University of Spoiled Children" anymore? Well, that's left to be seen, considering its $35,000 annual price tag for undergrads.

Lucido and other speakers said college admissions staffs should continue to assess test scores and grades, and should take into account other factors, like family income, to determine which obstacles applicants face as they reach toward higher education.

Conference participants such as Everett Jackson, an admissions director at the University of Nevada-Reno, were eager to hear how recruiters are connecting with high schools to attract a broad variety of students.

Everett Jackson: One of our issues is, basically, in the state of Nevada, is that we're trying to create a stronger college-going culture in the state itself. Nevada ranks as one of the most poorly educated states in the country. But, very interesting: we have a higher per-capita income that's higher than the national average.

Guzman-Lopez: Cal State University is working on that. It's sending top administrators to black and Latino neighborhoods for face time with parents, including conversations about what's required to go to college. Participants also talked about what students need to stay there and graduate. Their schools' retention rates ranged from the teens to above 90 percent.

Even colleges and universities that retain most of their students, said Williams College President Morton Schapiro, need to do a better job of measuring what they're learning, and what keeps them in school. To emphasize the point, Schapiro told a joke about a former Harvard University president who...

Morton Schapiro: ... in 1899 was asked, "How did Harvard become such a great storehouse of knowledge?" and his answer was, "Because the freshmen bring so much and the seniors take so little. You know, it builds up." I mean, that's a joke, but I don't know, is it still funny that after 110 years, we're still telling that joke, and not doing anything about outcomes assessment? I don't think it's that funny.

Guzman-Lopez: The three-day conference was the first sponsored by USC's Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice, a new think tank that plans to conduct more research on higher education access... and success.