UNM enrollment stagnant, despite dramatic growth in applications

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Enrollment has continued sliding at the University of New Mexico, but there is still a lot of interest in the state’s flagship institution.

Applications to New Mexico’s largest university have soared over the last decade, more than doubling between 2006 and 2016. In fact, UNM’s application swell in that span ranks among the most dramatic experienced by any state flagship institution in the country.

The 123 percent increase tied UNM for seventh – with the University of California, Berkeley – out of the 50 flagships, according to a recent analysis by The Washington Post.

The University of Alabama saw the largest uptick at 205 percent, followed by the University of Washington (173 percent) and the University of Mississippi (165 percent).

Applications are pouring in at a higher rate at many institutions around the country – flagship and otherwise – said Dacia Sedillo, vice president of enrollment management at New Mexico State University. NMSU saw its own volume grow by 40 percent in the same time period.

Sedillo said students are exploring more options than ever before, crediting the internet for easing the process and increased encouragement from high school guidance counselors.

“Where students in the past were known to be applying to two to three schools, they’re now applying to up to seven,” Sedillo said.

That’s reflected in “The American Freshman,” an annual project from the Higher Education Research Institute.

In 2006, only 11.5 percent of college freshmen surveyed said they applied to at least seven other schools than the one they ultimately attended; by 2016, it was 27.5 percent.

But while some schools experiencing the rush have continued adding students, at UNM the application numbers tend to belie larger enrollment trends.

UNM’s population grew nearly 13 percent between 2006 and 2012, but five straight years of declines have erased much of that gain. In comparison, UC Berkeley’s enrollment jumped 12 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to federal data.

Leaders say enrollment is contingent upon a complex mix of factors – some of them creating headwinds for UNM.

“Our reliance on many segments of enrollment outside of beginning freshmen make us vulnerable to swings based on economic and demographic variables,” Terry Babbitt, vice provost for enrollment and analytics, told the Journal in an email. “Local demographics are the largest influencer of enrollment at most public institutions like UNM and the numbers are not in our favor.”

New Mexico has experienced unprecedented population stagnation, charting historically slow growth between 2010 and 2016. That has limited the typical applicant pool for the state’s higher education institutions.

That has compelled UNM to cast its recruiting net wider. It has added admission representatives in other states, adjusted its messaging and purchased more data on prospects who take the ACT or SAT exams.

In the process, it has captured “softer” prospects, including those who are farther away and less likely to actually pursue UNM.

“We must seek more applicants from diverse domestic and international locations to counter stagnant population changes,” Babbitt said. “This ultimately leads to softer applications for institutions with lower profiles. Therefore it takes a larger growth of applicants to meet enrollment goals.” But data also suggest that some of the prospects flooding UNM’s admission office might be less qualified.

While UNM is accepting thousands more students than it did a decade ago, the percentage of total applicants actually accepted fell to 57.8 percent from 73.4 percent over a decade.

Interim President Chaouki Abdallah said the university continues to admit only those it deems qualified, because relaxing standards just to fill enrollment gaps is often a losing strategy. The student is not prepared for the university, he said, and the university is not prepared for the student.

“We could accept people with (a) lower academic requirement,” he said. “The problem is they won’t succeed in the second year.”

Like admittance, UNM’s yield rate – the percentage of accepted students who ultimately enroll – is also trending downward. The number fell to 37.8 percent from 59.1 percent 10 years ago.

With students casting a wider net in their own searches by applying to more and more schools, Abdallah notes that the university may stand only a slim chance of getting them in the first place.

But UNM is working to better seal the deal, calling on deans and representatives from individual UNM colleges to help land individual candidates, lending a more personal touch to the recruiting process.

UNM should ideally enroll about 45 percent of the students it accepted, Babbitt said. That’s “an indicator that we are pursuing the edges of interest but not grossly misjudging fit, which can lead to soft commitments and student success challenges,” he said.

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