Wichita State hires recruiting firm to boost enrollment

Wichita State University President John Bardo (June 14, 2013)
Wichita State University President John Bardo (June 14, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State University hopes to quickly increase enrollment by more than 7,000 students with what president John Bardo describes as a bold new recruiting plan.

He has hired a headhunter recruiting firm for $700,000 in a one-year contract to recruit students to Wichita from selected regions nationwide.

Bardo said that WSU has never tried this strategy before, as far as he knows.

“The plan is to spend hundreds of thousands,” he said. “The payoff will be in millions” in additional revenue from increased enrollment. His goal is to increase enrollment from more than 14,500 to at least 22,000, he said. University enrollment has hovered under 15,000 for many years.

National higher-education experts said a move like this is rare among universities, though not unheard of. Universities are even finding new ways to tap student-recruit markets in China these days, said Jerome A. Lucido, a higher-education enrollment expert at the University of Southern California.

Many universities, seeing state support melt away, have resorted to plans involving aggressive change, said Daniel Hurley, the director of State Relations and Policy Analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“The first thing I want to ask: Are they fundamentally changing the mission of the school? Does this in any way diminish access for current students, especially in Kansas?” Hurley said. “Assuming the answers to both questions are negative, the idea probably makes sense.”

Bardo said the answers to Hurley’s questions are negative, the possibilities enticing.

Bardo laid out this plan at a university meeting Tuesday, but discussed his proposals in an interview on Monday.

WSU has hired Royall & Company, a direct marketing company. “We finalized that relationship last week,” Bardo said.

Through Royall, WSU, which annually buys 20,000 names of potential high school recruits in lists from the companies that give ACT and SAT tests, will now buy lists with 50,000 names of high school seniors nationwide, and an additional 250,000 names of high school students down to the sophomore level. WSU will recruit them for three years.

All told, WSU will recruit thousands of more students, and in places where WSU has never aggressively sought students before, in states such as California and Illinois, Bardo said.

On Monday, when asked about Bardo’s plan, Hurley said he happened to be attending a conference at Stanford University in California about innovation in higher education. “We’ve been hearing from a number of start-up entrepreneurs here,” he said. “I think they would say that there is a huge market for human capital development in this country...still a very strong role for traditional residential public universities.”

But legislatures have cut university money everywhere, he said. So universities are trying things they’ve never tried, he said. Young people must persevere through this, he said, no matter all the bad news about rising tuition, student loan debt, and other problems.

“If I had one message for young people, it would be to keep charging,” Hurley said. “The payoff of post-secondary education is still very significant, there is still a strong return on your investment, and a lot of dividends down the road in life. Work with your parents or guardians, put together a savings plan. A certification or a four-year degree is still the bare minimum you need to have to realize a middle-class life.”

With no end in sight to state-imposed budget cuts in Kansas, Bardo said, he began looking more than a year ago at new revenue ideas.

Budget cuts and tuition increases in other states, he said, might become a plus for WSU.

In-state tuition in some states is now higher than out-of-state tuition at WSU. And in states such as California, Bardo said, enrollment caps imposed by universities to save money mean some students wanting to enter engineering or other lucrative fields find themselves having to attend community colleges rather than universities. Nothing against community colleges, Bardo said, “But let’s say I am a really bright kid, and I want to become an engineer. We offer a viable alternative.”

Out-of-state undergraduate students taking 15 credit hours a semester at WSU currently pay nearly $15,000 a year in tuition and fees, according to numbers provided by WSU. Out-of-state graduate students taking 15 hours pay about $20,400 a year. In the national marketplace, Bardo said, WSU’s costs are still a bargain compared with other state universities, and are far lower than the cost of private colleges.

Bardo said one other thought at the top of his mind has been the way that university leaders in the state, including himself, ended up disagreeing publicly with state legislators who imposed a 3 percent budget cut this year, on top of several consecutive years of other budget cuts. Bardo and other university leaders criticized the cuts, and legislators criticized the tuition increases that Bardo and other higher-education leaders asked for in several consecutive years.

Key legislators plan to visit WSU next month to try to find more common ground. Bardo said he now has something positive and proactive to tell those legislators, showing that WSU is trying to take care of itself.

“I wanted to bring more to the table for that meeting than complaints and requests for more money.”

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