Published on 2016/02/23
—Co-Written with Scott Howell | Director of the Salt Lake Center, Brigham Young University— 

The EvoLLLution | Becoming Strategic to Drive Extension Growth
By becoming more strategic, extended campuses can go a long way to overcoming obstacles to success, driving enrollment and supporting their main campus in a number of ways.

Across the board, higher education institutions and divisions are struggling with enrollments, budgets and other operational factors. This is particularly challenging for extended campuses, which are often revenue neutral. At Brigham Young University (BYU), the Salt Lake Center extended campus was looking at a downward enrollment trend and challenging obstacles to success. So they analyzed data and identified six strategic changes to overcome these roadblocks. In this interview, Steve Christensen and Scott Howell share those strategies and reflect on how they expect these changes to support the growth of the Salt Lake Center.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the leading factors for the recent enrollment decline at the BYU Salt Lake Center?

Steve Christensen and Scott Howell (SC/SH): Over the past seven years the Center has experienced a year-over-year decline in enrollments. One of the primary causes for this decline, we believe, is not offering courses students want and when they want them. The primary strategy for course scheduling in the past was to simply “rollover” course offerings from one semester to the next.  This long-standing practice had served the Center well in its earlier years but clearly had lost relevancy with curricular changes and trends at the university along with student needs and interests. Furthermore, the Salt Lake Center had previously been primarily just an evening program with classes starting at 5:00 and 7:30 pm, whereas many of the students are surprisingly interested in day classes too.

A more recent factor (beginning October 2012) leading to a temporary decline in enrollments at the Center was a change in policy by the center’s sponsoring institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. An abrupt change in the minimum age required for missionary service (from 19 to 18 years of age) shifted potential enrollments two years into the future.

Several other factors, when taken in aggregate, impacted enrollments over the past seven years. These included relocating the Salt Lake Center to a downtown location; changes in university, division and center administration; a fluctuating economy, particularly the 2008 economic crisis; record-setting fuel prices (42 miles separate the two locations); extensive interstate highway construction between the Center and the main campus; access to the Center using public transportation (Trax, bus, and train); changes in university freshman mentoring program which discouraged enrollments; the practice of not offering courses during the day; marketing efforts, etc.

Evo: What are the six strategies to drive enrollment growth that you came up with, and how do they differ from the work you were doing before?

SC/SH: The “six” is somewhat arbitrary since these initiatives, or experiments, overlap each other and evolve, with some giving way to others as the center moves forward trying different strategies to see which work best. We began this process with the hope these six predictive variables might help optimize an academic schedule, increase enrollments, better utilize adjunct faculty, and serve students.

1. Main Campus Enrollments

This variable helps determine which courses (and even number of enrollments) the Salt Lake Center should offer based on the number of sections/enrollments offered on the main campus.

2. Course Waitlist on Main Campus

Once the enrollments in a course on the main campus reaches the seating capacity of the room, a waitlist is created. (This waitlist enables students on a first-come basis to actually enroll in the class when an opening becomes available.) We believe this wait list information helps predict course demand for not just campus courses but also courses at the Salt Lake Center.

3. Companion Course Enrollment Pattern

This variable discusses which courses students usually take together in a cluster (usually the same ones advisement counselors recommend and general education requirements require) especially during the first two semesters for new students. It is useful because we know which courses students are likely to take in tandem and thereby organize the class schedule in such a way as to optimize enrollment opportunities for students. (This is similar to what Amazon does in predicting consumer interests based on previous purchases and other data. You may be aware that Amazon also filed for a patent in 2012, awarded on Christmas Eve, 2013, known as “method and system for anticipatory package shipping.”)

4. Cancel/Carry Decision To Better Retain Displaced Students

One of the enrollment challenges an extended campus like BYU Salt Lake Center experiences is the need to cancel low-enrolling courses to satisfy pedagogical and financial restraints. This factor seeks to minimize the number of course cancellations and, when necessary, to do them in a timelier manner so displaced students will find enrollment options in other classes at the Salt Lake Center, rather than lose them altogether.

5. Expand Course Availability

Historically, most courses at the center were offered during the later afternoon and evening. This practice was likely driven by evening availability of adjunct instructors who worked elsewhere throughout the day and were only available in the evening. Our new Division and Center administration seek to better utilize this facility during the day (and weekend) and serve students through expanded offerings throughout the day to better utilize the facility, if they actually come!

6. Student Preferences

This is similar but different from the “Course Waitlist on Main Campus” factor described above. This factor does consider course preferences, including elective courses, but goes beyond the courses and includes additional preferences, like which ones should be offered in which order with other courses, what day(s), times of day, and even which instructors. Obviously, the center can’t build every course, day, time, and instructor preference for every student but if patterns emerge across the students then certainly student preferences should be taken into consideration in enrollment management decisions. At this time the most practical way to accomplish this purpose is to gather data related to student preference by surveying students currently enrolled at the center and thereby optimize academic offerings to meet student needs.

Evo: What do you foresee as being some of the most significant challenges in putting those strategies into place?

SC/SH: One of the most important challenges in identifying and sustaining our strategies is mining, analyzing and interpreting a lot of data to better predict the why, how and when of enrollment management. In some ways this complex analysis is now possible only because Big Data tools are now available to educational institutions. In the past two years our institution licensed predictive analytics software Tableau, previously beyond the affordability and usability of educators.

Another significant challenge is recruiting, with the help of academic departments, those adjunct faculty who are flexible enough to teach courses when it is most strategic and not when it is most convenient. Also, there is the challenge of more competition from other educational institutions for this limited pool of qualified, adjunct faculty members.

A constant concern for distance and continuing educators, including those who work on an extended campus, will be academic support. Will academic departments support adding more courses and adjunct instructors to their department portfolio? Will surges in enrollments at the extended campus be perceived as threatening to the academic departments, especially if the increases in enrollments cause decreases in enrollments on the main campus?

Finally, will sufficient resources be available to support the additional analysis, strategizing, experimentation as well as the anticipated increases in enrollments that result from introducing these strategies at the BYU Salt Lake Center?

Evo: How do you expect this work to strengthen the position of the Salt Lake Center over the next five years?

SC/SH: The BYU Salt Lake Center will be better positioned to support the educational needs of a growing local community (Salt Lake and Davis Counties) some 40 miles distant from the main university in Provo, Utah (Utah County) as well as the increasing number of college-age student applicants from the international demographic associated with the sponsoring institution of BYU Salt Lake Center, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s important to note that in 2013, Utah was the second-fastest growing state in the nation with a growth rate of 1.6 percent —which is almost double the national growth rate. It is anticipated that the freshman class of 2016 will be the first in BYU’s history in which more students were turned away from admission than were admitted.

It is also expected that the utilization of the facility will be maximized as these measures are deployed. The Center recently acquired some enterprise scheduling software to better measure utilization which is around 20 percent (during class hours), though it is even less when measured by seat (since not all classrooms are fully occupied even when class is being held.)

Through implementation of the six strategies (and hopefully more, as they evolve and as we learn from others, too) the center will better serve students by offering courses they need and/or want to take, when they want to take them, and even taught by their preferred instructors. In addition, we recognize student demand changes over time. The six factors listed above provide a framework to better anticipate the needs of our students and optimize enrollments at the BYU Salt Lake Center.

Evo: How do you think the role of the Salt Lake Center as it relates to the BYU main campus will shift if you achieve the expected outcomes from these strategies?

SC/SH: The partnership between the main campus and this extended campus will be strengthened! The credibility of this continuing education arm of the institution will be enhanced. The main campus will actually look to the Salt Lake Center as part of its solution to help relieve enrollment pressures, support emerging pedagogical models, e.g., blended learning, flipped classrooms, etc., and extend the BYU experience to the state’s largest and fast-growing city (Salt Lake City) and its environs.

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Key Takeaways

  • By becoming more strategic in programming, outreach and retention, the BYU Salt Lake Center is projecting to overcome its recent challenges and grow its enrollments.
  • The most significant challenge to identifying these approaches was mining and analyzing critical institutional data.
  • The extended campus partnership with, and support of main campus, will be strengthened by its movement toward data-driven strategy and growth.