With SU’s fall enrollment numbers finalized, The Commons spoke with Marilyn Crone, vice president for enrollment management, to get her perspective on how things shook out for the current year as well as some areas of focus for the years ahead.
The Commons: Broadly speaking, how would you assess SU’s enrollment for 2011-2012?
Marilyn Crone: I think we achieved our principal goal for the year—which was to stabilize our enrollment results—so I’m delighted about that. Our overall university enrollment is basically level with last year. We’re grateful that in every category of new students—freshmen, transfers, graduate and law—numbers achieved were very close to the goal. We planned to have a smaller freshman class than we did last year, and we achieved that. We have a strong transfer class, and our numbers for continuing students are also good. We were off some on the graduate side—down five percent from last year—and we think that a significant portion of that is because the economy is negatively impacting a number of our students and employers are not providing the level of tuition reimbursements they had in previous years. But overall, we set out to stabilize enrollment and meet our budget and we achieved both, which is evidence of the wonderfully collegial work our academic, financial, institutional research, student development, athletic and enrollment colleagues have accomplished in partnership.
The Commons: I know that the undergraduate enrollment steering council has been hard at work on its five-year strategic plan. Can you talk a little bit about that group and the process?
Marilyn Crone: Well, for starters, I feel like I won the lottery by having Dr. Dan Dombrowski serve as my steering council co-chair! Anyone who knows Dan would affirm that statement. The steering council is a group of more than 30 people, broadly representative of the campus, who have co-labored together in a very collegial and collaborative manner over the past year to develop an understanding of the external and internal environment within which we work and compete for students. We’ve worked to better understand SU’s strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities in order to produce a plan to guide the university’s enrollment efforts over the next five-plus years. It is important that we have folks on the same page about what the size and composition of the undergraduate enrollment should be. Next week we’ll discuss key recommendations with the board and anticipate the formal plan will go to them at the February 2012 meeting. We’ll certainly look forward to sharing the results of the plan with the campus soon thereafter.
The Commons: Will the committee continue its work after that?
Marilyn Crone: Yes. Members of the steering council who choose to continue to be part of the process will likely meet a few times a year, perhaps quarterly, to make sure we’re on track to achieving our strategies.
The Commons: How about on the graduate side?
Marilyn Crone: Once we complete the undergraduate strategic plan, we will commence the graduate strategic enrollment planning process. So we’re looking forward to working with graduate deans and program directors to determine how we can strategically and successfully grow our graduate enrollment.
The Commons: In your view, why do students choose to enroll here?
Marilyn Crone: We know through surveys that our students are looking for a university with a strong academic reputation that has the programs they’re looking for and that we provide them adequate financial aid support to help them afford an SU education. They’re also selecting our location—what a great city we have—and the size of the institution. The university’s mission resonates with our students. We believe that we have significant opportunity to do a better job of communicating the university’s academic excellence as we recruit students. Through the undergraduate strategic enrollment plan process, we’ve come to recognize that we are much quicker institutionally to articulate several great attributes of an SU education but somehow we don’t communicate adequately enough the academic excellence of the institution. Bottom line, we need to take it up several notches.
The Commons: How about retention—you mentioned that we’re doing a good job with continuing students. Can you elaborate a little?
Marilyn Crone: Yes, we are already doing a good job on retention, particularly students returning for their second year. We had 86 percent of last year’s freshmen returning this year. While we were hoping for something around 89 percent, which we had last year, it’s still very strong. But we can do a better job on retention of students from their second to third years. We also want to see our four-year graduation rates continue to increase.
The Commons: I know that we’re a very tuition-dependent university…
Marilyn Crone: Yes, we’re clearly tuition dependent, but so are many institutions. To the extent that we are able to successfully grow our endowment, this would lessen the impact of financial aid having to come almost exclusively from the operating budget. So we hope that would happen over time—that the university would be able to see an increase in the folks who want to support us with a generous endowment.
The Commons: So, how did you get into this line of work?
Marilyn Crone: I was a commercial banker with (a predecessor of) Bank of America for 15 years and then was recruited to my alma mater, Baylor University, because of my financial background, community involvement, and experience in management and leadership. At Baylor, they brought me in to head their HR division, and at some point the president asked me to take over enrollment management. Working at universities has sort of blended a lot of things together. I certainly love having the connections with students and parents. I enjoy both marketing and sales, evaluating the financial ramifications of decisions, and working with the enrollment services team and our campus colleagues. It’s never a dull moment and one of those fish-bowl types of work, because you either make your class or you don’t; you make your budget or you don’t. Accordingly, there’s a fair amount of pressure associated with this work, but it’s both a challenge and a lot of fun. I love working with our enrollment services team. We have a tremendous team—a lot of hard-working, smart, dedicated folks, and I’m privileged to work with them.
The Commons: You’ve been here for almost two years, but since this is our first interview, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Marilyn Crone: I like to travel a little bit and spend time with family and friends and walk my dog (Tyler). I live across the street from campus, so I’m on campus a lot—the commute’s awesome! I’m also part of a ladies’ Bible study group—that’s one of my favorite things in life to do.
The Commons: Anything else you’d like to share?
Marilyn Crone: Just to say that I appreciate the great support we get from faculty and staff for campus visit events like the fall preview days, spring receptions, graduate student open houses and other welcome events. I’m very grateful for the many people who volunteer to be here on weekends and at nights to support those events. I would encourage everyone to continue to be watchful for guests on our campus. I love hearing stories from families who say, “I was lost and someone who wasn’t even connected with the Admissions Office walked me from one end of the campus to the other.” That just makes such a difference and it’s a Seattle University distinction.