Photo: Janeth Vela (center), a senior from Goshen, high-fives Molly Zook (left), a senior from Doylestown, Ohio, during the annual applause tunnel following the opening convocation. Brynn Godshall (right), a senior from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, looks on. The applause tunnel tradition is a way to welcome new and returning students. (Photo by Brian Yoder Schlabach/Goshen College)
As the 2016-2017 school year gets under way, Mennonite colleges and universities are seeing various results in enrollment. Some show another year of growth, while others are experiencing lower numbers, which are cause for concern.
Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, experienced a sharp decrease from 525 total students last year to 460 this year. Of 159 incoming students, 99 are first-years, and 60 are transfer students. Bethel has also seen a decrease in the percentage of Mennonite students enrolled.
Andy Johnson, vice president for admissions, made it clear on Sept. 16 during a phone interview that Bethel is not happy about these numbers and is working to fix them. In an effort to boost both the total enrollment and the percentage of Mennonite students, the Bethel admissions team is taking a revitalized approach.
“One of the things we’re doing in admissions is re-energizing the efforts to reach out to Mennonite students,” said Johnson. “That’s an important group of people for us. We need to make sure on our end that we’re investing more in Mennonite churches and Mennonite families and students. We know it’s not a quick fix; it’s a long-term investment.”
Bethel is in its second year of a campus-wide strategic planning process after being placed on the Heightened-Cash Monitoring Institutions list by the U.S. Department of Education. This list monitors institutions that have been flagged by the government for financial trouble.
“We’re working as hard as possible to make sure that’s not something we stay on for very long,” said Johnson.
Bethel isn’t alone in seeing a decrease.
Bluffton (Ohio) University’s total enrollment for this fall is 952, down from 1,011 last year. But while total enrollment is down at Bluffton, the total number of full-time, first-year, traditional undergraduate students is 235. According to Robin Bowlus, director of public relations, this number is up from the past two years.
Within the first-year cohort at Bluffton, 18 percent are students of color, and 7 percent are students who identify as Mennonite.
Bluffton is also making changes to improve future recruitment. Beginning in 2017, Bluffton will add a nursing program, a literary journal and golf as a varsity sport in hopes of growing the number of students.
“We expect to continue to make meaningful changes to both the structure and programs of Bluffton University,” said Ron Headings in a press release on Sept. 20, vice president of enrollment management and marketing, “as we seek to carry out our mission and vision of the future, faithfully serve the Mennonite Church and effectively prepare today’s entering college students for life and vocation.”
Hesston (Kansas) College is also facing fewer total students this year.
The total student enrollment for this fall is 401, slightly down from last year’s 409. But even though total enrollment is down, the number of new students in the first-year class rose from 206 in 2015 to 215 this year.
“We are seeing the fruits of several growth initiatives launched last year,” said Rachel Swartzendruber Miller in a Sept. 26 press release, vice president of admissions and financial aid, “including our bachelor’s in nursing program, athletic roster expansion, a new men’s golf program and an increase in staff for regional recruitment.”
While Bethel, Bluffton and Hesston are experiencing different degrees of lower enrollment, Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Goshen (Indiana) College are seeing growth.
EMU’s new first-year class of 223 students is higher than the average of 205 first-year students they experienced from 2001 to 2010. Their total headcount for undergraduates has also increased from 1,224 in 2015 to 1,260 students this fall.
The population of EMU students that are Mennonite or have a Mennonite connection is around 27 percent, which is an important factor in the campus’ diversity conversation.
According to Jim Smucker, vice president for enrollment, the campus community is engaging in “many, sometimes tough, conversations about what it means to be diverse theologically, ethnically and socio-economically–an important conversation that pushes us out of our comfort zone and calls for changes in systems, assumptions and practices.”
Goshen’s enrollment has increased nearly 4 percent, pushing their 2016 total up to 870 students. This year’s incoming class is 185 students, making it the largest entering class since 2009.
Goshen has also seen an increase in diversity. The overall student body is 35 percent students of color, with the first-year class making history as the most diverse class ever, with 43 percent of traditional students identifying as nonwhite.
In the traditional undergraduate first-year class, 41 percent of students were also ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class.
“We’re pleased not just with the size,” said Adela Hufford in a Sept. 15 press release, dean of admissions, “but more so with the quality of this year’s incoming class. We’re poised to continue the hard work of attracting top-notch students from our own community, across the country and from around the world.”