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Central Michigan University blames 'complacency' for enrollment dive

Central Michigan University
Central Michigan University wants to have 2,000 new freshmen students attend in fall 2022. A university leader said CMU must focus on more personalized interactions with prospective students to achieve its enrollment goals. (Wikimedia Commons)

April 21: Citing cash crunch, Central Michigan University pauses new student housing
April 15: Shake-up in Central Michigan University admissions after enrollment drop
April 4: U-M, MSU thrive while Michigan regional universities scramble for students

Blaming more than a decade of sagging enrollment on administrative complacency, Central Michigan University is aggressively ratcheting up marketing efforts to woo more students for the fall.

In an email to faculty and staff last week that comes after CMU announced plans to temporarily close three dormitories in mid-March, Jennifer DeHaemers, CMU’s vice president of student recruitment and retention, gave a blunt assessment of the school’s 43-percent decline since 2012 — while outlining strategies to change course.

“When enrollments reached a peak around 2010, a general sense of complacency overtook some areas of the university, creating a sense of satisfaction with outdated technology and leading to a failure to employ new and updated best practices of recruiting,” DeHaemers wrote in the email, obtained by Bridge Michigan.

Jennifer DeHaemers
Jennifer DeHaemers is vice president of student recruitment and retention at Central Michigan University. Her strategy for reversing enrollment declines includes a more aggressive “sales and marketing approach” to prospective students. (Courtesy CMU)

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Since 2012, CMU has gone from the fourth largest public university in Michigan, when it had an undergraduate enrollment of 27,114, to the seventh largest this past fall, with 15,465 students, according to data compiled by the Michigan Association of State Universities.

No other public university’s enrollment has dropped so sharply, though four schools have lost nearly 30 percent of their 2012 enrollment, according to data from the Michigan Association of State Universities. 

The turnaround strategy? 

DeHaemers pitches a “sales and marketing approach” to recruitment. That includes training staffers to make 100 calls a week to prospective students “to drive” applications and enrollment. Using staff and current students to “contact admitted students to encourage deposits.” And recruiting overseas students through virtual fairs “at all hours of the day, including 1:30 and 4:30 a.m. EST.”

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Central is not the only Michigan university facing declines. Eastern Michigan’s fall 2021 numbers are down 34 percent since 2012, and Ferris State, Saginaw Valley and Lake Superior State are all down 29 percent, the data shows.

In her email, which minced few words, DeHaemers said the school is being out-recruited by other Michigan universities — schools she referred to in the email as “competitors” — in the student-rich counties of metro Detroit. Indeed, freshman enrollment from Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties fell from 1,070 students in 2015 to just 525 students last year, a Bridge Michigan analysis of state enrollment records shows.

 

She noted that while other schools upgraded facilities and aggressively marketed to students in metro Detroit, there’s been no new residence halls built on CMU’s campus since 2006. 

In an interview, DeHaemers, who joined CMU in 2020, said she does not anticipate CMU will return to 2012 enrollment levels.

“We just need to get to the right size for this institution where we can best serve students,” she said. “We believe that we can serve more students than we have been, but we also don't want to be so big that we're not, you know, serving them well.”

DeHaemers said the goal is to have 2,000 new freshman students enrolled in the fall and 914 new transfer students. Over the next five to 10 years, she said CMU hopes to increase freshman enrollment to about 3,000 students. 

In the interview, she addressed the “complacency” comment in her email.  

“I’m making some assumptions because I've only been here almost two years, not quite,” she said. “But what I can see in the data is that 10 to 12 years ago, we had a lot more students and enrollment began declining. And if anything was done to counter that, it wasn't successful.”

“I think institutions sometimes are guilty of assuming everybody knows how great they are. And they forget to tell their story. And they forget to reinforce that story. 

“And if you have an enrollment of over 28,000 students at some point…it can get away from you before you stop and say, “Oh, my gosh, something's happening here. We need to really turn it around.’ And unfortunately, by the time the university sort of got in that position, many of our competitors had really stepped up their game to take away market share.”

As of Thursday, CMU had offered freshman admission to 13,796 students for the fall. Of those, 1,310 had submitted deposits. The university said it is boasting higher numbers of transfer applications, admits and deposits compared to this time last year. 

Freshman journalism and political science student Katherine Brown told Bridge that she chose CMU because her parents both work there and the university has a strong journalism program. But Brown said she didn’t see recruitment letters from CMU until the summer before her senior year of high school. In contrast, she received promotional mail from other schools during her junior year.

“So that kind of drew me away a little bit just from like, ‘Wow, CMU is not really recruiting me even though I'm like right next door,’” Brown said.

DeHaemers told Bridge that the school needs to be proactive in reaching out to prospective students in a more personal way.

That might include reaching out to younger age groups to build a personal connection to CMU early on. For example, the school has experts who research cyberbullying. So it might make sense to hold workshops that allow school counselors and families to learn about the topic.  

Prospective students, she said, want “very personalized interactions.” That means talking differently to students depending on high school experience, geography and academic interests.

In addition to stepped up marketing, DeHaemers’ email also suggests: 

  • Holding more events across Michigan, Toledo and Chicago where prospective students can ask current students, faculty, staff and alumni questions.
  • Reinstating a student call center for prospective undergraduate students
  • Providing in-person and virtual options for students to meet one-on-one with admissions staff 
  • Setting a target of getting 90 deposits a week through mid-May, and lowering the goals through the summer when most students have already selected a college. 

Maureen Eke, a professor of English and world literature, told Bridge that CMU faces a “tough, tough challenge” with enrollment. 

She called DeHaemers’ plan “ambitious” but said it is only possible to pull it off if the school truly has the resources to implement it. 

Eke said CMU cannot rely just on students from southeast Michigan because those students have several other nearby universities to pick from. Eke previously worked with CMU’s international programs and said building relationships and successful programs with other places around the world will take time. 

Brown, the journalism and political science student, said every school advertises “the same poster of a group of people walking somewhere.” She urged CMU to do more to showcase why the student experience at CMU is different.

Eke echoed that point. She said CMU needs to figure out what makes it “unique,” “significant,” and “relevant?”

She and the students interviewed also cited complaints about college life that are hardly unique to CMU, particularly during COVID-19.

Eke said she often hears student concerns about the quality of food and housing as well as long wait times for counseling, a problem universities across the nation are facing. She said students are struggling with mental health challenges and it’s “unacceptable” to face long wait times.

“The students who are here serve as our ambassadors and if they are not happy, hey, what do you think is going to happen?” Eke said. 

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Student Government Association President Kate King said she has shared her experience with prospective students at CMU “Maroon and Gold” recruitment events, one of several promotions DeHaemers highlighted in her email. 

King said the events helped “amplify” her experience, and eased students' concerns about academics, housing and other issues.  

Dylan Baker, SGA vice president, said a few of his friends have attended the events and found them fun, but he said he is hesitant to believe things will turn around in just a year.

“I think,” he said, “it's going to take a lot more than just a few Maroon and Gold dinners to kind of bring us back to where we were.”

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