Enrollment low, despite retention spike


Alex Aghayere

Spring enrollment 2016

By Campus Editor

Columbia’s total enrollment has dropped to 8,100 students, a 9.6 percent decrease of 861 students from the Fall 2015 Semester and a 5.1 percent decline of 433 students from the previous spring. 

This is the lowest enrollment the college has seen since the early 2000s. It stood at 9,257 students in 2004, the last year for which the data is available. It also continues a steady enrollment decline for the college since 2010, when it was at 10,972 students.

However, Jeff Meece, who took on the position of associate vice president of Enrollment Management on July 1, 2015, said he expects undergraduate enrollment to increase .5 percent to 1 percent for the Fall 2016 Semester, equaling about 20 to 40 additional students.  

According to Meece, the decline in enrollment from the Fall 2015 to Spring 2016 semesters can be attributed to the 507 graduating students in December, those who dropped out because of financial constraints and others who transferred to other institutions.

He said low spring enrollment can be caused by low enrollment in the previous fall semesters, since the only way to obtain more students from fall to spring is by gaining transfer and new freshman students.

The college’s retention rate from Fall 2015 to Spring 2016 was 89.6 percent, which is a slight 1 percent increase from the previous year, according to college spokeswoman Cara Birch. 

She added that the college’s year-to-year retention rate, which fluctuates, has been on an upward trajectory since 2013 when there was a significant jump in retention for freshmen and transfer students.

Meece said the Enrollment Management Office is developing strategies to improve enrollment, such as identifying prospective students who would be likely to enroll at Columbia earlier on in the recruitment process, starting as early as their sophomore year of high school. 

The office also aims to improve its customer service by being consistent and using easy-to-understand academic processes for admitted and continuing students. 

“Our goal is to put ourselves in [students’] shoes and say how will we make our processes easy to understand and make sure students understand what to do [when dealing with academic matters],” Meece said. 

The School of Fine & Performing Arts experienced the greatest decline from Fall 2015, having decreased by 11.2 percent, or 508 students, in undergraduate enrollment. Within the school, the Music and Dance departments experienced dramatic declines in enrollment of more than 17 percent.

Onye Ozuzu, interim dean of the School of Fine & Performing Arts, said she feels positive about stabilizing the college’s enrollment numbers and looks forward to doing so by embracing the year-one strategic plan process of focusing on curriculum. 

“I don’t know if there is anything more important than [focusing on curriculum] at this moment,” Ozuzu said. “[The curriculum] is the heart and soul of what we do here, which is the heart and soul of what attracts students to our campus.”

 Ozuzu said the college is working to open pathways for interdisciplinary work between departments, offering thoughtful combinations of majors and minors that would be clearly communicated to incoming students.

“We are going to have an unprecedented opportunity to really mold curriculum that will speak to the interest and the needs of the coming generations of students,” Ozuzu said.

Despite the overall decline from fall, the enrollment in the school’s Theatre Department increased 4.6 percent by 35 students since last spring.

John Green, the chair of the Theatre Department, said the department’s growth was caused by several factors, including its unique concentration in comedy writing and performance, being located in a city with more than 200 theaters and having faculty and staff who work in the theater community.

“The students who are attracted to our programs know they want to be theater artists,” Green said. “They are not looking for general education, they are looking for specific training in the arts.”

In the Fall 2015 Semester, the Theatre Department had experienced a 5.8 percent increase of 48 students from the last year, which Green said was the largest enrollment increase in the department’s history.

The School of Media Arts experienced an 8.2 percent decline in enrollment of 275 undergraduate students from the Fall 2015 Semester. The Journalism program and the Audio Arts & Acoustics Department were most affected with decreases of more than 12 percent.

However, the enrollment in the school’s Interactive Arts & Media Department increased 1.5 percent, by 5 students, since last spring.

The Audio Arts & Acoustics Department chair and associate chair could not be made available for comment as of press time because of scheduling conflicts. 

From the previous spring, the Advertising & Public Relations program in the School of Media Arts saw a 15.8 percent decline of 52 students, which Suzanne McBride, interim chair for the Communication and Media Innovation Department, attributes partly to the splitting of the Marketing Communications Department in the Spring 2014 Semester. 

She said the split might have created some issues on how students are categorized and counted in the system, adding that some students may also be confused about what program best fits them. 

McBride said overall she is pleased with the enrollment numbers because the programs are currently sustainable and offer the right balance of hands-on experience, class size and feedback from instructors. 

“It is everyone’s job—faculty, staff and even students—to do exciting, interesting work to make this a kind of place we want to be at,” McBride said.

This translates into  excitement that attracts new students, she said. “It is a very infectious thing.”

Enrollment in the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences declined 5.2 percent, by 29 undergraduate students, since the Fall 2015 Semester. The departments most affected included the Science & Mathematics Department, which decreased 14.3 percent, by two students, and the Education Department, which decreased 7.8 percent, by five students. 

However, the enrollment in the school’s History, Humanities & Social Sciences Department, which represents the Cultural Studies major, increased 8.7 percent, by five students, and the school’s American Sign Language Department increased 3.5 percent, by four students, since last spring.

Steven Corey, the interim dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences said the enrollment numbers compared to last spring are relatively the same, which is “heartening,” adding that LAS courses have recently became widely popular, contributing to the growth of the school’s enrollment. 

Corey said the college always has a drop in students from fall to spring, but is pleased to see the college’s 89.6 percent student retention rate continue to increase compared to previous years. 

The graduate program saw a 22.2 percent decrease of 89 students from the Spring 2015 Semester to the Spring 2016 Semester with the Education Department decreasing 61.8 percent, by 21 students, the Art & Art History Department decreasing 34.8 percent, by 16 students, and the Creative Writing Department decreasing 25 percent, by 26 students. 

Journalism was the only graduate program to experience an increase, having increased 30 percent, by three students.

McBride said Curtis Lawrence, an associate professor in the Communication and Media Innovation Department and director of the Journalism Graduate Program, has worked hard to recruit graduate students, personally calling applicants to interview them and help them better understand the program. 

Meece said the number of enrolled students in the graduate program is down, but he is encouraged by the number of prospective students and hopes for a positive increase in the Fall 2016 Semester.

Besides undergraduate and graduate programs, the college continues to work on other areas for enrollment to attract more prospective students such as an online program, along with continuing to add more international agreements with countries, Meece said. 

Meece said the optimal enrollment total would range from 10,000 to 12,000 students at most, but the college needs to ensure it can sustain that number of students with its current resources. He said conversations about the optimal enrollment sizing will continue in the next academic year. 

“I don’t expect a big shift right away [in enrollment],” Meece said. “It takes a while to do that, but I definitely think we are going to see some positive gains [soon].”