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Students walking by the Denver skyline on campus. Photo credit: Alyson McClaran

Bucking the enrollment trend

In a red-hot local economy, strategic business practices don’t just mean dollars at MSU Denver – they make sense.

November 16, 2017

By Cory Phare

At 2.2 percent, metro Denver has one of the country’s lowest unemployment rates.

That’s a good thing, right?

Well, yes – except if you’re a higher-education institution whose enrollment numbers are historically tied to this floor-scraping statistic. Which makes MSU Denver’s half-percent increase in full-time enrollment for 2017 all the more remarkable.

So how does a University break the challenge that comes from a cycle of good fortune? By investing in its most important assets.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – my top three priorities are students, students, students,” said MSU Denver President Janine Davidson. “And despite nationwide affordability concerns, we should be the model institution of how higher education can serve as the road to upward social and economic mobility.”

The foundation for Davidson’s vision – that the University provides access to a shot at the American dream – is tied directly to the value of the MSU Denver degree. And it’s at a time when employers are actively wooing skilled employees because of increased market demand.

“Since 2007, our enrollment has followed the exact pattern of the unemployment rate, which is common for urban institutions nationwide and about as clear a correlation as you can find,” said Steve Kreidler, vice president of administration, finance and facilities. “We understand there are factors beyond our control and no one wants a bad economy, so we’ve invested heavily in strategies that take us away from a highly correlative model – and now we’re starting to see the results.”

This included hiring more than 20 additional success-support personnel in areas such as career services and academic advising, and equipping them with tools for proactive intervention to prevent a poor grade or withdrawal and to keep students on track. Another area of focus has been investing in student scholarships through the MSU Denver Foundation and direct contributions.

The result has been meeting students where they are to make good choices and develop a strategy to stay on the road to graduation – rather than stopping out.

This focus on retention and success is important because MSU Denver is also quickly becoming a top-flight destination for many first-time college enrollees, said Lori Kester, associate vice president of enrollment management.

“We’re seeing more students coming in, taking more classes,” she said. “Our high school recruiters are hearing counselors telling prospective students about MSU Denver more and more, and for many, we’re now their No. 1 school of choice.”

Infographic charting the relation between Colorado's unemployment rate and MSU Denver's total enrollment from 2004 to 2017. Full-time enrollment increased by .5 percent, breaking a downward trend over the past six years.

When it comes to what’s on the docket next, Davidson looks to characteristics dubbed the “Roadrunner Difference,” framing employer expectations of what MSU Denver students will be after graduation – namely diverse, tenacious, primed, purposeful and entrepreneurial.

“I am committed to ensuring that the Roadrunner Difference endures,” she said. “We intend to deliver high-quality education at an affordable price to as many would-be Roadrunners who want to take this journey.”

Kreidler also saw three fundamental priorities to keep building on the successful divergence from the unemployment-rate trend.

The first is to continue capitalizing on the transformation that saw University advancement more than double its fundraising efforts by bringing in $7.1 million in 2017.

Another area of focus is expanding recruitment beyond the seven-county region where nearly 95 percent of MSU Denver students come from. Kreidler pointed out how creating high-profile areas of study benefits the entire University community.

“Over the past six years, we’ve really taken solid programs to programs of distinction,” he said. “These signature areas create a halo effect that exposes students to the fact that so much of what we do is high-quality. They might say, ‘I heard about your beer program, but now I’ve discovered the history department is really great too.’”

Third, Kreidler said there is a huge opportunity to pursue more federal and state grants. And with the University also surpassing the 25 percent enrollment requirement for designation as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by the federal government, a new potential funding stream can help every Roadrunner.

“Through HSI initiatives, we have evaluated and assessed our efforts, looking for gaps and better ways of doing things to realign and improve access, persistence and completion rates. This not only helps Hispanic students but also improves support and services for all,” said Angela Marquez, Ph.D., special assistant to the president for HSI.

“It makes business sense to be dedicated to educating Colorado because people with higher education secure better-paying jobs and have more purchasing power, which drives the economy,” she added.

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