Even before unrest at The Evergreen State College made national headlines last year, it had problems.
Enrollment has been going down for a decade. It’s not alone — liberal arts colleges across the country have seen their numbers decline — but Evergreen’s nontraditional model can be a hard sell to students whose first question is “What majors do you offer?” (“Well, Evergreen doesn’t have majors, but …”)
Then came the allegations of racism and intolerance, the student protests and a fight over free speech that caught the attention of cable news and conservative websites and ended in threats that shut down the campus for three days in June 2017.
None of which made attracting new students any easier.
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“To some degree no matter how many emails we send out or postcards we mail or individual meetings that we have with (prospective) students, if questions about our reputation are hanging in the background, it makes those efforts much more difficult…” Eric Pedersen, the college’s chief enrollment officer, told trustees at a recent meeting.
Late last year, college leaders set out to address these challenges with what they are calling their renewal strategy that focuses on Evergreen’s reputation, how it recruits students and what it offers them once they get to campus.
Evergreen is being more aggressive when it comes to marketing, alumni relations and outreach to lawmakers, said Sandra Kaiser, vice president for college relations. Heading into the legislative session, college officials are touting a recent report Evergreen commissioned from the Thurston Economic Development Council that found for every $1 invested in the college, a return of $4.68 is attributed to the college, and the college accounted for $109 million in direct spending in Thurston County during the 2016-17 school year.
“We’re never going to match the University of Washington, which can buy every kind of digital ad and full-page ads in every newspaper in the state,” Kaiser told The Olympian recently. “We really need to be talking about what we have to offer, and we need to be sure that we’re serving the people of Washington and the people in our region the best can.”
That includes changing how Evergreen talks to prospective students. The college famously lets students design their own studies, but faculty are now developing more defined paths — in areas such as media arts, entrepreneurship and sustainable agricultural — to give prospective students a clearer idea of what they would learn and what kind of skills or expertise they’d have after graduation.
To make applying more attractive, this fall Evergreen started accepting The Common Application — that’s one application a student can send to multiple schools — and has joined a multistate exchange program that will let qualified students from outside Washington pay a discounted nonresident tuition starting next year.
Evergreen has started hosting souped-up open houses where prospective students can tour the campus, talk to a counselor, fill out an application and be admitted all in one visit. Officials are also doing more outreach at nearby community colleges and considering making test scores such as the SAT optional for applicants.
Based on early application numbers in the spring, Evergreen’s enrollment picture is already better than what officials had predicted, Pedersen told trustees.
This fall’s headcount was 3,327 students, down from 3,881 students in 2017. But retention rates, which fell from fall 2016 to fall 2017, were up this fall. That, coupled with more students enrolling in July and August than Evergreen typically sees, brought the headcount in above expectations.
“While we haven’t returned to some of our historic levels or the high points, it is absolutely good news that last year’s dip (in retention) has completely reversed itself in most cases,” Pedersen said.