Vicki McCracken is an unabashed number cruncher. A data wizard whose challenge is to help Washington State University’s administration navigate a course to achieve its enrollment and strategic goals.

In late January, she was named WSU’s associate vice president and associate vice provost for enrollment services, with a primary reporting line to Student Affairs and a secondary reporting line to the Provost of Academic Affairs. To say the least, it’s a key position that will chart a course determining WSU’s future student demographics — academic standings, diversity, majors, gender.

“I like to think big picture, not just what it means to us,” says McCracken… “I want to make sure we’re making data-informed decisions, rather than decisions based on gut feelings or trends. We have access to so much more information today by which to make good decisions.”

Armed with a Ph.D. in agricultural economics, McCracken has been a faculty member, researcher and administrator with the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences for the past 20 years. But the title she claims most strongly is econometrician. You know, a person who merges the fields of statistics and economics.

She’s not entirely new to the enrollment management post, having served since November as interim assistant vice president in the Student Affairs component. In her new position, she will directly supervise and oversee the budget and planning processes for the Office of Admissions, the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarship Services and the Office of the Registrar, and work closely with the Provost to assure maximum coordination between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs in accomplishing the university’s goals and benchmarks.

Following is an excerpt of an interview with McCracken:

Q: What is enrollment management? Is there more to it than the title suggests?
McCracken: I prefer to look at it from a broad perspective. It ranges from recruiting, to enrolling, retaining and graduating, and everything associated with them.

For example, retention traditionally is more of an academic affairs issue, but the types of students that we recruit and enroll impact how well we retain them. If our students are more qualified, we’ll probably retain more of them. So, this becomes an issue that needs to include numerous people and offices. This is not the only position responsible for managing enrollment.

In addition, enrollment management needs to address the entire student process from recruitment through graduation and beyond. (McCracken referred to a diagram known as an enrollment pyramid. The base was labeled “identifying prospective students, the pinnacle was “active alumni.”)

Q: Talk about the process of identifying prospective students.
McCracken: One way we identify potential students is by buying names from testing organizations like the College Board (e.g. for the PSAT and SAT). There are lots of names available to buy, but the question is how do we know what names to buy and what to do with them? There’s a lot more involved than just putting in an order to buy 50,000 names for a mailing.

Something I want to emphasize is that test scores like the SAT are not the only measurement we use for admissions. I’m supportive of a more comprehensive, holistic review of all students, so that we can better predict whether a student is going to be successful or not. High school grade point average is important, but if someone is near the margin of being admitted, we currently do a holistic review, looking at the curriculum they took, their personal written statement, their life situation.

Q: So how do you create an enrollment strategy?
McCracken: I believe you need to look at the big picture. For example, you need to relate identifying prospective students to retention patterns. (McCracken pulled out a chart tracking student retention from 1998 to 2004.)

Incoming students with higher academic scores show a graduation rate of 82.6 percent (in 6 years or less). Students with lower academic level entry scores show graduation rates as low as 45.8 percent. Students who didn’t graduate could have transferred to another university or college or community college, or just dropped out for a variety of reasons — lack of scholarship money, changed majors, poor grades, family crisis.

Q: How students are recruited now will determine how WSU is positioned 5 to 10 years down the road. How do you determine that course and your criteria?
McCracken: A lot of those decisions have been made through the university’s strategic plan, including what we want to be as a research institution and what we need to look like in terms of a student body to achieve those goals. Now, we need to design an enrollment management plan that is dynamic and flexible, and reflects those goals.

… If the goal is to increase the number of students in science and engineering, then we don’t just go out and recruit every high-ability student we can and hope they end up in science in engineering. Instead, we need to be very thoughtful about both recruiting and granting admission. And, the good news is we’re already doing a lot of this. My job is to help improve and direct those efforts.

Q: We’re spending a substantial amount of money in marketing and recruiting for enrollment. Is that a good investment?
McCracken: It costs to recruit students and get them here, so if we lose them because they are not performing academically or don’t want to be here … then we have to invest money into recruiting more students. From a flow-through perspective, it’s cheaper to get the right students here and have them graduate. Think of all the money and time and effort needed to recruit someone.

Q: Do we know what the difference in cost is between these enrollment styles?
McCracken: No, not specifically. However, one of the things my office will do is to benchmark the cost of recruiting students.

But I am confident in saying that it is cheaper to recruit one time every four years for a spot, rather than recruiting for that same spot every year … It’s similar to business; if you recruit, hire and invest in training someone and then they leave, you have to invest in hiring and training all over again.

Q: We have received an overabundance of applications from higher level students during the past three years. Do faculty need to continue to be involved in the recruiting process?
McCracken: As you move up the enrollment pyramid, starting at the base with prospective students, the building of relationships becomes progressively more and more important.

If we are after high quality students, the faculty have to be involved. Top students won’t just come here because we’re a research institution. There are other universities interested in them too that are contacting them. We say we’re “World Class. Face to Face” and that personal treatment is important in the recruiting stage too.

Many faculty already are involved in various programs including the review of the Regents Scholars and the review of marginal applications, and we are seeing positive results from that.

The current overflow in students at WSU stems from several reasons, including a changed image and marketing, as well as an increase in the demographics of students statewide who are college age, and a change in the job market where more education is necessary.

The growth in high school grads has been on a strong upswing since about 1993, and will peak out in 2008-2009. At that point, the population of college age students statewide is expected to decline or flatten out for 10-15 years. State demographics tell us that if we want to continue to have a large percentage of high-level students, we cannot back off in our marketing or in building our image.

Q: Five years ago, WSU recruited or admitted students up to the 10th day of classes. More recently, we have raised and continue to raise the academic bar for admission. Are we still a land grant university? Are we becoming elitist?
McCracken: We are definitely a land grant university, but that doesn’t mean the same thing it used to. What it means is there is an expectation that we serve the needs of the state’s people. It used to be the rural population was much larger, and the need was more in the agricultural production areas. Now, the percentage of people living in agricultural regions is not as high as it used to be … Agriculture still is an important industry, estimated as a $29 billion industry in Washington.

Also, being a land grant institution doesn’t mean that our sole focus is agriculture, but that we serve the needs of individuals in the state. It is not just one college that makes WSU a land grant institution. For example, the College of Engineering and Architecture serves the needs of industry throughout the state.

Nor are we becoming elitist. Currently, most peer land grant institutions have set levels higher than us. In fact, we are very low in terms of our SAT admission scores. In SAT rankings, we are number 10, at the bottom of the Pac-10. And, among our 16 peer land grant universities that have veterinary schools, we are 16th out of 16. But, we have identified our goals in the strategic plan and are moving toward achieving them. And as we do, we should advance in those rankings.

Q: Who is a role model for us? Who do we want to be like? Purdue, Cornell, UW? What are we trying to become?
McCracken: I don’t know that there is a single institution we want to pattern ourselves after. We have to set our own goals and be ourselves. We do want a more diverse student body, higher ability students, more graduate students than we currently have. And we want to become a recognized leader in research.

I would like to see us have more students interested in science and engineering — everything from agriculture, to veterinary medicine, to College of Sciences, and more — because there are jobs out there waiting for them … jobs that are currently being outsourced to other countries.

From a state budgeting standpoint, we often picture one piece of the pie growing larger and another having to be reduced. Sometimes, the question is: How can we increase the size of the pie. … increase our external fund raising and endowed scholarship programs?

If we want to grow in engineering and sciences, we need to have more capacity in terms of faculty and students.

McCracken holds a bachelor’s degree in economics and home economics from Indiana University, and master’s and doctorate degrees in agricultural economics from Purdue University. Her past titles at WSU have included associate dean for academic programs and associate director of research, both in CAHNRS, and professor in the School of Economic Sciences.