Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Cal Poly Humboldt Admin Optimistic Despite Not Meeting Enrollment Projections

Posted By on Tue, Sep 12, 2023 at 3:21 PM

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MARK A. LARSON
  • Photo by Mark A. Larson
To some, Cal Poly Humboldt’s enrollment glass might seem half empty.

After all, the university’s current enrollment numbers — which won’t be finalized until Sept. 18 — show an uptick from last fall of just 2 percent, an increase of 123 students where the campus had projected a spike of 2,000 just six months ago. That puts the campus behind enrollment targets that were hoped to see a near doubling of its student population by 2028 and leaves the university also facing a permanent 5 percent funding reduction under a new California State University rule if it fails to increase enrollment by 862 students next fall.

Chrissy Holliday, Cal Poly Humboldt’s vice president of enrollment management, however, says she sees the glass as half full for a few reasons.

First, Holliday notes, this is the second fall in a row that Cal Poly Humboldt has seen enrollment growth, which previously hadn’t happened since 2015. That’s significant, she says, especially with enrollment down across the California State university system in recent years.

Second, Holliday says, applications were up 85 percent this year over last, with more than 7,000 more first-time undergraduates alone applying to Cal Poly Humboldt for the fall of 2023 than the previous year. Admissions were way up, too, with nearly 8,000 more prospective students at all levels having the choice of attending the university.

“The Cal Poly name drove a lot of interest in us,” Holliday says. “How do we close the deal on that? How do we let them know what’s special about us?”

The challenge over the coming years is to close the gap between admissions and enrollment, Holliday says, adding that she already has some plans. One thing that’s become clear, Holliday says, is the Cal Poly name has put the university into competition for a different type of student with different types of universities.

“We’ve really moved into a new market space and having to position ourselves differently,” Holliday says, noting the school is now more appealing to students in STEM disciplines and tasked with convincing them it is a better fit than one of the state’s other polytechnic universities, or schools like University of California at Santa Cruz, with established reputations for science programs. “I think our best argument for us is location and areas of study.”

Humboldt is a special place, she says, and the school needs to pitch kids interested in the sciences on coming to live and study in a “living laboratory” where redwood forests, mountains and the Pacific Ocean are all within reach of campus.

To aid that effort, Holliday says her department is revamping all of its recruiting materials to market Cal Poly Humboldt’s strengths to a more specific type of prospective student. Additionally, she says, it's working to facilitate more individual contacts with prospective students, whether it be by mail, text message, email or a phone call, noting that it’s found personalized contact results in more engagement.

In that vein, Holliday says Cal Poly Humboldt is also working hard to host more events and other opportunities to get prospective students to campus, like spring and fall “preview plus” events that bus prospective students to campus from other parts of the state. The belief is both that to see Humboldt is to fall in love with it, but also that the university wants incoming students to show up knowing the campus and community they’ll be studying in, as it will help retention. Holliday says retention is a key component of enrollment growth, making it important that the university prioritize recruiting students who are likely to be a good fit and stick around on campus.

It's worth noting that the latest numbers for Cal Poly Humboldt’s fall semester have the number of new incoming students down ever so slight — by two students — so it’s actually an increased retention rate that’s driven this year’s modest enrollment increase.

With the enrollment stakes already high, as university officials used projected increases as part of its sales pitch to the state to give it the polytechnic designation, the CSU system recently implemented new rules that pushed them higher. In January, the system announced that in the face of a systemwide 25,000 student decline since the fall of 2020, it will start penalizing campuses that miss their enrollment targets by 10 percent or more by permanently withholding up to 5 percent of their annual funding allotments, though it won’t start doing so until the 2024-2025 school year, at the earliest.

Cal Poly Humboldt’s enrollment target is set at 7,603 full-time students, or 1,622 more than are currently on campus. To avoid the CSU penalty, it appears Cal Poly Humboldt will have to increase enrollment next year by 862 students.

Holliday says there's a silver lining to the university not meeting its enrollment projections, noting it allows additional time for its infrastructure buildout of classrooms and, perhaps more importantly, housing to progress before a spike in new students.

Speaking generally about the university’s target of nearly doubling enrollment by 2028 to serve some 11,000 students, Holliday says she’s optimistic.

“It’s going to take a little bit of time to get established in this new polytechnic space and for growth to happen, but I’m confident that we are still going to meet the long-term goals the campus has for enrollment,” she says. “We are going to celebrate the growth that we have and keep pushing toward our goals.”
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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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