Winthrop University didn’t attract as many freshmen this fall as officials had hoped, but the school’s top recruitment and enrollment manager says he’s developing a multi-year plan to improve the campus’ flat enrollment numbers.
Eduardo Prieto, hired in January by Winthrop to oversee the university’s recruitment and retention efforts, said Friday that school officials had hoped to enroll as many as 1,200 new students this year. Enrollment numbers won’t be official until October, but Prieto says the college didn’t meet its goal.
One issue: Winthrop needed a better plan for student enrollment, Prieto said. Developing a solid marketing plan to pull in new students and to ensure current students return is how Prieto hopes to put his more than 20 years of experience on college campuses to work.
Prieto was on a trip to Oklahoma on Friday that includes meeting with high school guidance counselors to promote Winthrop’s academic programs and scholarships. In Rock Hill, Winthrop’s acting president, Debra Boyd, talked with some school trustees about how Prieto and others plan to boost student enrollment.
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The plan includes starting Winthrop-specific bridge or transfer programs with every two-year technical college in South Carolina. Winthrop officials already have an agreement with York Technical College in Rock Hill that aims to give students a smooth transition to earning a four-year degree after taking some classes at the two-year technical school.
Last year, the bridge program brought 20 York Tech students to Winthrop. This year, officials say 30 students used the transfer program.
Adding a residential option for York Tech students to live at Winthrop, Boyd said, may be a way to enhance the partnership and attract more students.
On Friday, trustees also briefly discussed whether Winthrop should lobby state lawmakers for permission to grant in-state tuition rates for students living in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. South Carolina students pay $13,812 each year in tuition to attend Winthrop. Out-of-state students pay almost twice as much.
Prieto says Winthrop needs to “dominate in our own backyard” and be more prominent in the Charlotte area. Nearly 90 percent of the university’s nearly 6,000 students are from South Carolina.
To enroll more students, Prieto said, Winthrop should “work inside-out” and take advantage of there being “still room to grow” within the state.
The university can complement its largely in-state student body by strategically recruiting high school students from other parts of the United States and internationally, he said. Winthrop is looking specifically to boost its name recognition in the Northeast, where some in-roads already exist because the school has recruited athletes from that area for its newest sport: women’s lacrosse.
The team played its inaugural season in 2013. The 20-member lacrosse squad includes just two athletes from the South. The other players are from states such as Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Athletic recruiting opened the door to many high schools in those states, Prieto said. Continued presence in specific areas, he said, is often the key to recruiting more students.
Enrollment growth has become a frequent goal among many Winthrop leaders over the past year as school officials say the campus has room to accommodate about 1,000 more students. When former President Jamie Comstock Williamson arrived at Winthrop in summer 2013, she said she hoped to turn around the school’s lackluster student population growth.
Statistics from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education show that Winthrop’s enrollment has trended downward since 2003. The agency’s 10-year analysis of student enrollment at four-year public schools across the state shows that almost every institution has seen growth. Winthrop, the Citadel, S.C. State University and USC-Aiken have seen a decline in enrollment over the past decade.
Winthrop’s enrollment fell from 6,553 students in 2003 to 6,130 in 2013. Enrollment figures for this year aren’t available.
As a new president, Williamson hired Prieto and led a re-organization of some of Winthrop’s recruitment and retention efforts. Early in her tenure, she set a goal of increasing total enrollment by 1,000 more students during the next few years.
Trustees fired Williamson earlier this year – just five days shy of her one-year anniversary – after levying several allegations against the new president, including claims that she mistreated campus employees and lied to the school’s board members. Through her attorney, Williamson has denied all of the trustees’ accusations.
Though Williamson is no longer president, Prieto says the enrollment growth plan is still intact unless he hears otherwise from Winthrop leaders.
“We definitely want to grow,” he said. “We need to grow.”
Winthrop officials say enrollment is a top focus because tuition revenue is the main source of income for the school. In recent years, state tax support for public universities has consistently declined. At the start of school last month, faculty leader Gary Stone, an economics professor, told Winthrop trustees that employees are tired of being told the university does not have enough money for significant pay raises.
Several trustees said then that they are making compensation equity on campus a top priority. But, the money won’t be there to pay employees more until Winthrop enrolls more students, said Karl Folkens, vice-chair of the board of trustees.
While Prieto met with guidance counselors in Oklahoma last week, other Winthrop recruiters were in two other states and several more were deployed across South Carolina. Under Prieto’s leadership, Winthrop officials are hoping to also improve the university’s retention of students from their freshman to sophomore years.
On Friday, Boyd reported that Winthrop’s retention rate has improved from last year and that the university has a plan to continue the upward move. Changes to the university’s scholarship offerings could be key to helping students with financial needs stay at Winthrop to graduate, she said.
Winthrop is also exploring ways to make classes more accessible by offering varied meeting times for required courses, Boyd said. Ensuring that classes can easily be scheduled, she said, eliminates a barrier for many students and should help retention.