Mauri Ditzler, recently named Albion College’s 16th president, will inherit more than a fancy office in Ferguson when he starts his new job this summer. He will inherit the privilege of getting to know the many great students of Albion, and he will inherit, at least in part, the responsibility of recruiting more students.
As part of the extensive interview conducted with Ditzler after his announcement Friday, he discussed his ideas about student enrollment—a large concern for many.
But before even getting into strategy, Ditzler thoughtfully posed and answered his own question: should Albion college grow?
There are economies of scale, he pointed out. If an institution grows too much or too quickly, it may pay more in resources, he said. There are showers to heat and teachers to hire. And you don’t want to sacrifice the benefits of a small school: seminar classes and having the same professor several times, among other boons.
However, since a comfortable student population for colleges like Albion is somewhere between 1,800 and 2,400, and with Albion currently resting at just below 1,400, Ditzler says that Albion can certainly grow into itself without needing to expand.
In addition, boosting enrollment within the school’s capacity also eliminates the institution’s need to raise prices for current students.
But it’s not all just about financing to Ditzler.
“Then you add on top of that that if you really believe that what Albion does is special – create people who change the world – there is a lot of work that needs to be done out there in society, and we need more people to help us with it,” Ditzler said. “So if instead of graduating 250 students we can find a way to graduate 325, that’s a darn good thing to do because we just suddenly grew our impact by 20 percent.”
So yes, enrollment can and should rise. What’s next?
According to Ditzler, this is a question for which nobody has really developed an answer since the recession. People, he says, have begun thinking about the economy differently, and whereas they may have at one time felt confident about investing more in a liberal arts education, the cost, for many, is now too high.
So, as a scientist, Ditzler recommends the tried and true practice of experimentation.
“I adhere to the phrase, ‘theory guides, but experiment decides.’” Ditzler said. “You can sit down and say, ‘let’s devise the perfect recruiting strategy,’ but you really don’t know it’s the perfect strategy until you try it.”
And experiment he did while at Monmouth College. For four years after the recession, Ditzler and his colleagues tested a great variety of strategies. Some worked well, some kind of worked, and some were disasters, he said.
A crucial part of that process, succeed or fail, is collecting mass amounts of data so that informed analyses can be performed on both what worked well and what didn’t. Then, using those answers, Ditzler says a college should move forward.
“You can’t be stubborn and keep doing things that don’t work, but you also can’t be afraid to try new things,” Ditzler said.
In this process, one item that Ditzler says he will pay especially close attention to is Albion’s “perceived value.” Families won’t pay a higher tuition to come to Albion than to go to a community college or a state institution unless they perceive that it is worth more, he said. Attending to the college’s perceived value, however, involves two separate parts: how valuable the school is perceived as and how valuable it actually is.
Perception means we have to market ourselves–we have to let people know what we have, because if they don’t know what we have, it doesn’t matter how good it is, Ditzler said. But it’s not all just marketing. We have to make sure the product we are selling is worth buying, so, he said, we need to work all the time in every way we can to add value to what we are doing.
“If someone says we have a great introductory Chemistry class, my response, and initially people will get irritated with this, but they’ll get used to this, will be ‘that sounds great—what can we do to make it better?’” Ditzler said. “Marketing is easier if you’ve got a great product.”
And a part of that product, Ditzler recognizes, is Albion’s high proportions of students involved in athletics and Greek life.
He notes that fraternities, sororities and athletics are all great means for recruiting new students because they engage prospective students with the campus community. Simply put, when athletes come to campus and they meet the coaches, watch a game, and stay overnight with players, they enroll, Ditzler said.
“It’s not like there is anything magic about athletics except that they attract students to campus,” Ditzler said.
He thinks that if we could do the same thing for biology students—get them to come to campus overnight and maybe do an experiment—it would have the same effect.
The same is true for fraternities and sororities, he says. In his experience, fraternities and sororities offer prospective students an insight into the campus community and college life that the admissions counselors simply cannot replicate or provide.
Despite the bad press fraternities and sororities occasionally receive, their mission statements reveal them to be noble organizations, and so the college, Ditzler said, is responsible for bringing out the best in them and using them to the fullest possible extent in recruiting.
“We ought not do anything that doesn’t educate students or build their character,” Ditlzer said. “I’m convinced that athletics [and Greek life] do that. If they don’t, well we ought to stop doing them. If they do build character, we ought to offer that opportunity to more and more students.”
Ditzler also expressed interest in using those campus groups to engage current students, saying he would like to have conversations with any social or athletic groups that extend to him an invitation to do so.
“I won’t be intrusive,” Ditzler said. “If I don’t get invited to a chapter meeting, I won’t come. If the football team doesn’t invite me to stop by the locker room before the playoff game, I won’t go there, but I enjoy it when they do invite me.”
Photo by Travis Trombley