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Utah colleges look to rural Utahns and adult learners to keep enrollment trends up

The University of Utah sign in front a tree-filled quad.
Brian Albers

While managing to so far avoid nationwide trends in declining college enrollment, Utah colleges are looking to remain ahead of the curve by expanding their outreach and marketing efforts.

Higher education officials say better messaging around the benefits of the college experience are increasingly needed, as prospective students worry about the rising cost of attending and schools face growing competition from cheaper online options.

“Nationally, there is kind of a demographic cliff on the horizon,” said John Marfield, admissions director at the University of Utah. “There's going to be far fewer high school graduates in general across the country. But there are certain geographic regions where the number of high school graduates are going to remain a little bit more stable.”

Marfield said southern Utah is one region in particular that appears stable, yet untapped, as many students there often don’t consider attending the U. He said many view the school as either too expensive or too far away.

The U recently hired its first in-state regional admissions counselor, whose job is to reach out to students in Washington and Iron counties, as well as rural and remote schools throughout southern Utah. Marfield said the goal is to have someone in the area year-round who can host events, meet with students and try to get them to consider going to the U.

He said the position is part of a larger outreach strategy for the school, which began with placing two counselors in California about two years ago. The university hired another in Texas last November. Marfield said the areas were chosen strategically to capitalize on the increasing difficulty of getting into local schools — such as those in the University of California system — and to pitch students a relatively close alternative.

He said the U has seen about a 38% increase in applications from California alone, which he attributes at least in part to the counselors. While the school set a new enrollment record for the second year in a row last fall, Marfield said it has to be proactive in order to make sure that trend continues.

“We're in a good spot,” he said. “We're able to fill our class. But we want to make sure that we're filling our class with students from all over the state and really getting the word out there.”

Colleges around the country are throwing big money around for advertising campaigns and other outreach efforts to attract more students in the face of decreasing enrollment. Utah is following suit, set to launch a major awareness campaign later this month. Officials with the Utah System of Higher Education are requesting $5 million in state funds to continue it over the next few years.

In a recent legislative hearing, USHE vice chair Nina Barnes said it’s increasingly important to address perceptions that college is too expensive or that students don’t have options if they don’t get high scores on college admissions tests like the ACT.

She said the messaging applies to tech and community colleges as much as traditional four-year schools.

“The system is set and built and ready, but we have a disconnect,” Barnes said. “We need to figure out a bridge that brings our potential students all over the state into the system, and that needs to be a seamless pathway.”

On average, about 1 in 3 Utah students don’t enroll in a state school, according to USHE data. There are also close to 400,000 adults in the state with some college credit but no degree.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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