A new era of enrollment management at WSU

Closeup of Saichi Oba.
Saichi Oba

The university is revamping its enrollment management strategy with a focus on better understanding the preferences of potential students to develop effective solutions to critical barriers such as cost.

At the head of Enrollment Management at WSU is Saichi Oba, who joined the university last fall as its vice provost for enrollment management. While much of his focus this past year has been on the Pullman campus, he envisions a future where more time is spent on systemwide initiatives.

“We’re trying to capitalize on the system itself,” Oba said. “WSU’s stellar academics, research, and community engagement coupled with our data-driven initiatives will allow us to emerge from the pandemic in a very strong position.”

Strategies to sustain and grow  

Collecting and analyzing a wealth of survey data will help WSU get a much clearer picture of the factors at play when deciding between universities. It’ll also elucidate barriers that students face, giving WSU a better grasp of what it must do in order to reach students from historically underserved communities. WSU is also conducting a reputational analysis and competitions study for all of its campuses to better understand where it stands in relation to other universities in the region.

“If you had 10 enrollment managers respond to the question of what is the most significant issue facing institutions of higher education, I would be surprised if less than nine said broadening the group of potential students,” Oba said.

One way to do this is to make it easier to apply. Last year, international students were able to apply using the Common App, which allows users to apply to hundreds of colleges across the United States. Many domestic students even applied through the international application even though it wasn’t targeted to them.

WSU is implementing the Common App for domestic students. While only about 1% of applications submitted so far have come through Common App, they are up noticeably at WSU Tri-Cities and Vancouver, said Nancy Wehrung, senior associate director of admissions.

“It’s too soon to draw a true conclusion, but what I think we can agree on is that the WSU system is getting more exposure,” Wehrung said. “It will be great to see how the year unfolds and what next year brings.”

Catering to underserved students

Traditionally, colleges and universities could fill their classrooms by recruiting at high schools across their home state and region. But the biggest opportunities for growth now lay outside the confines of cafeterias.  

The state of Washington has hundreds of thousands of adults with some college but no degree, Oba said, and it’s that group that WSU needs to learn the most about in the years ahead. It’s a group colleges across the country market to, offering things like fully online learning where they can learn on their own schedule. WSU’s best chance within this cohort is with those who’ve previously attended but didn’t finish or graduate, Oba said.

“We really need to do a deep dive on these Cougs, understand why it is that they left and come to them to offer options like Global or campuses close to where they live,” Oba said. “Some of these students will have left with low GPAs, and we’ll need to be clear about what it’ll take for them to earn their diploma, and on our end, be prepared to offer comprehensive support. Overall though, I have faith in the value of the WSU experience and our ability to welcome Cougs back home.”

WSU must also become a more diverse institution if it hopes to attract more students of color. An effort lead by Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth Chilton to hire more diverse faculty members is a great start to an effort that must persist if WSU hopes to make its faculty and staff reflective of the student population it anticipates hosting in the future.

Financial barriers to attending college remain the most significant hurdle facing students. At WSU today, approximately 29% of students pay no tuition thanks to federal or state funding in combination with institutional grants and scholarships. Another 29% pay full-freight, leaving around 40% percent who pay a portion of tuition with help from grants and scholarships. Learning about the socioeconomic backgrounds of students paying no or partial tuition will inform WSU of how it can work to provide more effective institutional support, Oba said.

“Given WSU’s status as the state’s land grant university that prizes student support as a critical mission, I would love to see us put more money towards making us more accessible to a wider demographic of students,” Oba said.

Of particular interest to Oba are programs announced across institutions of higher education that pay tuition for students whose families earn less than a specified threshold of annual income. Further discussions are necessary to determine what that kind of effort could look like at WSU, and Oba is eager to have those conversations with administrators.

The power of the campus visit

One of WSU’s key strengths is its ability to convert prospective students into Cougs once it gets them onto a campus, particularly the WSU Pullman campus. Historically, 95-97% of students who go through an in-person orientation program at Pullman end up attending classes. Last year however, it was about 87%, a decline compounded by the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That portion of the enrollment funnel – from submitting a deposit confirming their place at WSU to actually being enrolled on day one – has been our Achilles heel these past two years,” Oba said.

Enrollment Management is looking to address that in a few ways. One involves offering grants for Pell-eligible students to allow them to travel to Pullman for orientation at no cost. Another is to host remote orientation programs for those who cannot make it to a particular campuses’ program. New technology is also being rolled out that gives students access to everything to do with enrollment all in one place, and an additional tool that parents can use to make sure their student has done what’s required before the first day of class.

Oba also hopes to see orientation become more standardized across the system, with campuses taking what works at one location and seeing how they can apply it to theirs. He’s also excited to see programs like Shaping High School Asian Pacific Islanders for the Next Generation and La Bienvenida come back into form after a pandemic hiatus. Potentially separating registration and academic advising could also help ensure potential students have all of their questions answered while at orientation.

“We admit students typically one time in their life, whereas we have to advise and register them every term until they graduate, so we have to get this right even the first time around because they’re going to go through this every term with us, Oba said”

For Oba, WSU represented a chance to do vital work at one of the few land grant R1 universities with a system-focus. 

“Enrollment management is one area that pervades all boundaries of campuses and is vitally important to all of us,” Oba said. While it’s important for bottom line, it’s most important because our job first and foremost is to educate Washingtonians, which is why we’re focusing on systemwide enrollment management.”

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