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September 27, 2012 10:07 PM

Recruiting And Retaining Students At SMSU

Marshall, MN

Between classes and activities, students at Southwest Minnesota State University can enjoy their student center.  It opened just seven years ago and it's one of the things freshmen Emily Olson likes about the campus.

"I looked all of the country, at all different sizes and things like that. So I had a wide variety of seeing a lot of schools," Olson said.

Olson is an exercise science major and received scholarships for academics and athletics.  That's what helped get her to the school she fell in love with while on a tour.

"I like the characteristics of an older school, but it is nice and new and modern and they have everything that we would need here.  It's all we could imagine," Olson said.

"What we've in the history of this institution, is if we can get someone to come look at Southwest Minnesota State University, they're going to like what they see," Interim president Ron Wood said.

Wood is in his second and final year as interim president at SMSU.  He says that Olson's recruitment is fairly typical.  But, getting students here hasn't been easy.  In fact, last year's class of incoming students was one of the smallest in recent history. 

"We're going to face that for the next three years.  It's important to be steady.  Our goal is to, we've got a little over 500 this time.  We'd like to get us at 550," Wood said.

Numbers rebounded by about 100 students this year.  Wood credits that to many changes SMSU made in recruiting.  First, the school changed the area where it looks for potential students.

"The circle had been very wide.  We were over in Wisconsin and very western South Dakota and down into Nebraska.  I said let's look at our 19 county and our immediate region like going up and down the spine of Interstate 29, making sure we're recruiting in an area in which we have some recognition.  That seemed to help a good bit," Wood said.

Secondly, the school focused on high school students who are most likely to continue their education, like those who take advanced classes and score well on their ACT.  Those students were offered more incentives.

"We decided to front load our scholarships so that when our recruiters went out, they had something to offer them," Wood said.

The school also uses its facilities as a recruiting tool.  Outside of the student center is a new football stadium.  SMSU also just added cross country and will add track and field next year.

On the academics side, a new program in which registered nurses can get their Bachelor of Science in nursing is about to start.  SMSU is also looking at adding an agriculture program for the first time.  That all adds up to more students on campus.

"We look at the institutions around us that would be primary, the University of Minnesota and SDSU, they're much more research oriented.  We want to be more applied and put someone back to work without them having to go on and get a masters or Ph.Ds in ag," Wood said.

Getting students here is one thing, keeping them here is another.  Right now, about 70 percent of freshmen at SMSU will go on to get their degree here.  Wood would like to see that number climb to 80 percent.

SMSU is piloting several programs to help mentor students along the way and retain them in the process.  This all comes at a time in which the university has had a budget decrease of $5 million in just four years.

"People think that we're raising tuition just to raise tuition.  We're raising tuition just to fill maybe 30 percent of what our cuts have been.  Then the other 70 percent, we've got to figure out efficiencies," Wood said.

Yet, Wood says SMSU has been able to promise no cuts this year and should be sitting well financially next year as well. That all points to a strong turn around.

"With more new students coming here, word is going to get out and more people are finding out about this school, so a lot of people will be coming here, so that's good," Olson said.

That's both good for the student experience, and the university's bottom line.

Right now, SMSU operates on about 38 percent state money.  Wood, who was previously retired, will retire again at the end of this year.

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