In 2014, Randy Deike, senior vice president for enrollment management and student success, began an admissions strategy overhaul, taking into account the student experience from application to diploma.
In 2005, Drexel University introduced the Fast App, free to prospective students, in an effort to increase the applicant pool. While the next nine years saw an increase from 12,000 to 55,000 applications, the university also found it necessary to employ an 80 percent acceptance rate just to get a freshman class of the appropriate size.
This strategy and its consequences left Drexel’s yield rate — the amount of accepted students that enroll in the university — at eight percent. The national average yield is 36 percent.
Deike identified the core goal of this strategy to be volume.
“It was ‘get as many applicants interested enough to apply, make it very easy for them to do that and then with a very large applicant pool start admitting students based on criteria,’” Deike explained.
“What the institution found was even though application numbers kept climbing, the yield rate, or the percentage of students we admitted that actually enrolled, kept declining. And Drexel was finding that there were students who, even though they were great students, they weren’t well informed about Drexel, or they hadn’t really thought about whether Drexel would be a good place for them,” he continued.
In 2014, when Deike started in his role at Drexel, the university took large strides to shift its admissions goal from volume to quality in an effort to improve the student experience.
“Our goal is to recruit and enroll alumni, not freshman. Our goal isn’t just to get people in the door for a term or two. Our goal is to make sure that the students that come to Drexel are well enough informed that they understand what we’re about. Cooperative education, the co-op program, is very different from other institutions; being on the quarter system is different from lots of other institutions,” Deike said.
Drexel made strategic changes that include dropping its VIP application and becoming a Common Application-exclusive institution, charging an application fee of $50, and implementing a more holistic review of applicants when making admissions decisions.
The desired outcomes for the University were improvements in one-year retention, graduation rates, yield rates and summer melt rates. (The “melt” is enrolled freshmen who do not attend.)
Two major short-term goals are bringing the one-year retention rate above 90 percent and raising the yield rate as high as possible. Yield has been as low as 28 percent below the national average, and Drexel’s historic average for one-year retention rate has been 84 percent.
“In just one year, we’ve seen an over four-percentage-point increase in retention, first-year retention, from fall to fall for the fall 2015 class when compared to the average of the previous five freshman cohorts. That’s almost unheard of,” Deike explained.
This four-point rise puts the retention rate at 89.1 percent for the fall 2015 class, nearly reaching Drexel’s goal in the first year. Deike explains that this validates the steps they have been taking to improve this metric.
Yield, however, still remains well below the national average, and it has been slower than retention in responding to the new strategies. The current yield rate is 11 percent, and the University wants to increase it by as much as it can.
This slow growth does not reflect the wide-ranging steps that Admissions has taken to improve student knowledge about Drexel. It has been leveraging the tools of social media, email and in-person information sessions to keep the conversation with prospective students going.
Drexel also redistributed financial aid funding to better support students. In the past, the vast majority of Drexel financial aid was merit-based, while very little of financial aid dedicated to need-based awards. Deike says that this change was all about giving students the resources they need to be successful.
“If you’re not [offering need-based financial aid], students who have greater financial need than others are not in a position then to be successful because they don’t have the resources they need to stay enrolled and graduate. We were finding that to be the case,” Deike said.
So the numbers are improving, and the small-class strategy seems to be paying off, but with fewer students how will Drexel cope with the decreased revenue from tuition?
The past few years have seen cost cuts and policy changes in response to the planned decrease in freshman class sizes. In June 2015, the University laid off several dozen administrative employees and reduced spending in areas such as printing and travel costs.
In that same year, the University also changed the timing of its faculty performance review and merit increase process from the beginning of the fiscal year to the beginning of the calendar year and raised tuition by 3.9 percent.
“Drexel is a tuition-dependent institution, and it makes more sense to base the merit increase pool on actual fall enrollment rather than early projections made in the spring,” Helen Bowman, executive vice president, treasurer, and chief financial officer of Drexel, wrote in an April 2015 financial update.
Deike acknowledged that Drexel is tuition-driven and smaller freshman class sizes will affect short-term budgets, but he also emphasized the importance of strategic long-term investments and the impact those investments will have on students.
“A smaller freshman class, of course, that will have some implication on budgets, but not necessarily on the long-term plan,” Deike explained.
“Growing the university in ways that contribute to the experience that students have is an incredibly important strategic investment — things like classrooms and lab space. Those investments are really important, and that’s a big part of the master plan. It’s ‘how do we enhance the experience that students have through the bricks and mortar that we have here’,” he continued.
With a six-year graduation rate of 68 percent — well below its goal of 80 percent — and a yield rate of 11 percent compared to the national average of 36 percent — Drexel has yet to see a rise in some statistics. However, the one-year retention rate has seen a significant increase, showing progress from the new initiatives.