By Sophie Foster
Significant enrollment decline is, not for the first time, being noticed by administrators and admissions staff at Washington College.
According to previous Elm coverage, this issue was first noted in earnest during the 2017-2018 academic year.
“After a slight dip in enrollment this year — going from 414 to about 390 students — President Kurt Landgraf is working to increase that number with the help of [Vice President] of Enrollment Management Lorna Hunter,” the article said.
Now, that enrollment number has dipped further to just 257 students in the 2023-2024 freshman class.
Not only is the decrease more marked now than it was in the late 2010s, but in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to previous Elm coverage, it was a genuine concern from former President of the College Dr. Kurt Landgraf that “some first-year classes…[are] getting quite large, and that’s not fair to students and faculty.”
Additionally, the position dealing most directly with this issue, vice president of enrollment, has seen significant turnover in recent years following Daniel Forster’s mid-semester departure in 2017 and Lorna Hunter’s exit at the end of the recruitment cycle in 2022. Now, the position is held by Johnnie Johnson.
According to Johnson, though enrollment is lower than it was in the 2010s, it stabilized over the past two years, with each incoming class averaging about 250 to 260 students.
“Obviously, we’d like to increase the incoming numbers significantly, and steps are being taken to do that,” Johnson said, “but increasing the incoming class numbers, as well as increasing overall enrollment, doesn’t happen overnight. It is a process and takes time and strategic planning, as well as significant investments.”
Among the most important elements to consider moving forward, according to Johnson, is increasing the retention rate by taking steps to ensure that, once students are enrolled, the majority of them stay enrolled for their entire undergraduate careers.
“One of the most important rates is the first year to sophomore year rate,” Johnson said. “We feel as though that rate increased about five percentage points from last year to this year, and while that might not seem like a lot, it adds up to 10 to 12 more students coming back to WC versus that number withdrawing.”
According to Johnson, everyone on the faculty and staff has a role in retention and can contribute by providing a positive environment for students. Components of this endeavor that Johnson attributes retention success to are faculty’s attention to student interests; distinguishable academic programs; new athletic teams, including golf, cross-country, and track and field; the renovations made to the first-year and Western Shore residence halls; and fresh admissions partnerships.
Those working in admissions are also presently working to combat this issue, according to George’s General junior Jordan Hyde.
“In admissions, we are fully aware of the enrollment situation and have been actively working on trying to improve enrollment numbers,” Hyde said. “At the head of this charge is [Johnson] and Director of Events and Volunteers Victoria Velton. Johnnie and Victoria’s energy and commitment toward this cause is absolute.”
According to Hyde, admissions is specifically considering events that will serve to boost enrollment, retention, and student engagement such as this semester’s new lineup of “Fall Fridays.”
“These events will be similar to our open house events, but instead on Fridays, with the hope that prospective students get to see campus when current students are actively in and out of campus buildings. The hope is that campus can feel livelier. These Fall Fridays are in addition to ‘Saturdays on the Shore,’ also a new initiative, and our traditional open houses,” Hyde said.
According George’s General senior Karen Anderson, the reworking of the admissions team has also implemented undertones of hope to this ongoing dialogue. Anderson agreed that the new lineup of admissions events will, ideally, boost enrollment.
“The hope with this is that with prospective students seeing campus actually alive and in motion it can help them in making their decisions, and hopefully that decision [will be] to commit to [WC],” Anderson said.
Hyde also shared a belief that there may be a direct correlation between the onset of COVID-19 and enrollment decline, and that this issue is one discussed frequently among Generals.
“COVID-19 was, and still is, a major public health issue, but it’s also highly associated with socioeconomic issues as well,” Hyde said.
According to Anderson, the point to be taken away from the enrollment conversation on the whole is that WC is not necessarily the typical college experience, and that processes like this will innately look a little different from other institutions as a result.
“You’re not going to be another number,” Anderson said. “If you’re looking for a personalized experience and, honestly, a unique experience, [WC] is really the spot for you.”