For the first time in its history, Sul Ross State University has developed a comprehensive analysis of enrollment trends and data across its four campuses. The Strategic Enrollment Management Plan (SEM), completed in December 2019, contains strategies to grow the university’s enrollment over time, in a sustainable manner.
Following Dr. Bill Kibler’s appointment as the 12th president at Sul Ross, he recognized the university’s long history of peaks and drops in enrollment and charged the Enrollment Management division with analyzing the data to develop a strategic plan for the future.
In 2018, Dr. Lisa Harris, Vice President for Enrollment Management, began a systematic and deep analysis of enrollment trends that eventually led to the development of the Strategic Enrollment Management Plan. The plan is a first-of-its-kind analysis of the university’s mission, strategic plan, resource allocations, regional influences, and academic strategies.
The data showed the university’s most recent enrollment decline appears most heavily from upper division and graduate students at all campuses. Compared to last year, enrollment across all campuses declined by 346 students.
Harris’ research indicates that every aspect of a student’s experience at Sul Ross impacts future enrollment and prospective student engagement. The SEM outlines needed improvements in admission processes, student records, student life involvement, student services, financial aid, academic programs, and numerous other areas.
“Maintaining a stable and growing enrollment has been a challenge for Sul Ross throughout its entire history,” said President Bill Kibler. “Without a strategy like the Strategic Enrollment Management Plan, we become subject to the enrollment whims of the nation, state, and region.”
To address the decreased enrollment, Kibler explained that the university must confront the challenges head on by acknowledging its deficiencies to find effective solutions, understand the needs of the citizens in each service area, and by celebrating its uniqueness.
Challenges such as location, cost of attendance, student engagement, instructional delivery methods, and overall student experiences present opportunities for the University to make significant improvement and changes.
Kibler will retire as Sul Ross president in June but emphasized the importance of laying the foundation for enrollment growth moving forward.
“It’s time to rethink what we do and how we attract students to Sul Ross, and now more than ever, we must set the path for success at our university,” Kibler stated.
The university began building strategies last summer to address enrollment while the SEM Plan continued to receive input.
In the spring of 2019, Kibler challenged the Enrollment Management Division to rethink the orientation process for incoming students in the summer. The result was the creation of the Frontier Student Experience.
The Frontier Student Experience includes an intensive weekend where new students meet in Alpine and celebrate its remote location with various outdoor activities, engage with Lobo Ambassadors (current students), and learn more about how they can earn an education without distractions.
“The best part of meeting new students is sharing how much Sul Ross can change their life,” said Lobo Ambassador and Senior, Tristen Licon. “We get to talk with them and their parents and tell them that they are making the right choice by coming to Sul Ross.”
Additionally, in the fall semester, the university began work to redesign the current website to make it more functional and modern by the summer of 2020.
“A lot of folks don’t really consider just how important an attractive and workable website is to enrollment,” said Kibler. “Every survey reflects the fact that the number one source that any prospective student and parents consult is the website.”
Following review of the SEM Plan in December 2019, Dr. Kibler formed the Enrollment Business Operations (EBO) Task Force to begin a systematic process of reviewing all areas of the university business operations related to enrollment.
Members of the Task Force include staff from admissions, enrollment management, finance, information technology, the registrar’s office, institutional research, and administrators.
“This will be a cross functional team that will come together to look at every one of our processes, procedures and policies, all of which impact student records and the whole enrollment enterprise,” Kibler said.
Another initiative brought forth in the SEM Plan is the implementation of a Customer Relations Management system (CRM), which brings new technology and tools to our recruiting and communications efforts.
According to the SEM Plan, the goal of the CRM is to significantly change the methodology of contacting a prospective student and building a relationship with them. Kibler added that implementation of the CRM is contingent on the work of the EBO Task Force.
“Part of the function of this Task Force is to ensure that those procedures and policies guide what the CRM does within our system,” he said.
The University continues to explore reasons for declining enrollment but more importantly continues to strategize ways to make sustainable improvement.
Among outside factors that directly impact enrollment at Sul Ross and other institutions of higher education is the current oil boom, specifically in the Texas Permian Basin.
“That’s tough because obviously that’s something over which we have no control,” said Kibler. “But we still need to anticipate those kinds of things and create strategic responses to those factors.”
While a boom in the petroleum market provides definite obstacles to growing and sustaining enrollment, Kibler highlighted the importance of predicting those trends so that Sul Ross is poised to provide educational opportunities to students seeking skills in those areas.
Additionally, Sul Ross is currently exploring other enrollment markets, primarily from across the Rio Grande.
“Right now we are opening up what has the potential to be a significant pipeline for students from Chihuahua, Mexico,” said Kibler.
Sul Ross was part of an active recruiting initiative several years ago in Chihuahua but the events of September 11, 2001 and other circumstances in northern Mexico brought those efforts to a halt.
However, SRSU looks to reopen an avenue for that market in anticipation of the need for educational opportunities along the borderlands.
“It will take us a while to get there. We may start with just a few but we’ll eventually build our way to that higher goal,” he said.
Another enrollment initiative involves the development of a Middle Rio Grande Higher Education Master Plan.
Over the last four decades, Sul Ross offered upper division degree programs in Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and Uvalde with little awareness from community members. Many students believed that Sul Ross Rio Grande College was an extension of Southwest Texas Junior College rather than a separate university that offers Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.
Sul Ross partners with the Junior College and leases academic and administrative facilities to provide higher education opportunities in each city and via video conferencing.
While these opportunities exist in conjunction with the main campus in Alpine, Kibler recognized the deeper need for a more extensive higher education plan to address the underserved population in the middle Rio Grande region.
In 2019, Kibler began conversations for a higher education master plan that will include input from the regional independent school districts, Southwest Texas Junior College, and Sul Ross. The plan will provide collaboration and direction for sustainable and needed growth in educational attainment for citizens in those areas.
“Based on Texas Workforce Solutions data, we’re looking at the possibility of growing and enhancing the size of some of our existing academic programs and facilities in the middle Rio Grande region,” said Kibler. “And each of the educational institutions in the region plays a major role in the development of the higher education master plan.”
Sul Ross looks toward a brighter future
President Kibler made it clear that the decline in enrollment is cause for concern but is also full of opportunity.
As with any organization, self-assessment and self-awareness can lead to a better output and his goal before retiring is to begin the process for self-evaluation to learn how well Sul Ross is doing so that the next president can take over and lead the University into a new era with the right tools.
The strategies outlined in the Strategic Enrollment Management Plan will provide some direction as Sul Ross looks ahead. More importantly, university stakeholders will have the opportunity to engage in a university-wide assessment of best practices toward a student-centered and service-oriented culture.
Dr. Kibler and the University community understand that the SEM Plan will need additional assessment and will not yield immediate results but the plan and its lessons offer hope and strategies for the future of Sul Ross in Alpine, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and Uvalde.
There is no doubt that Sul Ross State University will continue its 100+ years of offering affordable education to students who seek a path to change their lives. There is a certainty that the university will undergo changes to enhance its image, its engagement, and its legacy.
As President Kibler said, “We are Sul Ross and that will not change, we will continue to fulfill our mission.”