How do you get students to enroll at Tabor College? It was a no-brainer for me. My parents worked there, I grew up attending a Mennonite Brethren church and I never seriously considered going anywhere else.
It’s not that way for most of the student body.
There are a number of ways to attract tuition-paying students. One is by significantly increasing the perceived value or academic quality. Raising the academic bar is possible, but it involves a decades-long process.
A second way to increase enrollment is to build lots of new facilities. However, most small private colleges cannot afford to get in a competitive arms race to attract students. At best, colleges like Tabor hope to stay somewhat level with the competition, so that’s a non-starter when it comes to finding an appropriate growth strategy.
A third way to grow is to build enrollments on population growth. It helps, of course, if the population is growing, but the demographics of Kansas and the Plains states aren’t particularly encouraging.
If you look at a map of the United States and identify the region where the number of 18-year-olds has declined the most between 2004 and 2012, you’re mainly talking about the Plains states. During that timeframe, North Dakota was down 20 percent, South Dakota declined 11 percent, Montana was down 11 percent, Nebraska 7 percent, Kansas 6 percent and Oklahoma 8 percent.
Tabor’s enrollment has traditionally relied heavily on students from these states, along with Colorado and California. For what it’s worth, those two states actually have seen an increase in the number of high school graduates — 4 percent and 12 percent respectively.
And it’s not likely that Kansas politicians will raise taxes to help students pay their tuition to private colleges in Kansas. In fact, the amount of financial support for public universities continues to decline, at least in terms of overall revenue from taxes.
Another option is to offer programs in population centers. Tabor has developed a niche market in Wichita, which helps make the rest of the institution sustainable.
Still another option is to expand its strong music program. Tabor has quality faculty and a respectable rehearsal facility, but not the performing arts center it needs to knock the socks off potential students.
One more area that I can think of for raising enrollment is athletics.
One thing we know about college athletics — most parents will pay more tuition if their children are able to compete in the sports they love.
Athletes persist at higher rates than non-athletes. Most athletes love their sport more than school itself, so they hang around to play. Most stay, and remain eligible, so that they can be on the team. Because athletic teams knit people together more tightly than most other activities, participation in sports keeps people in school at a rate that exceeds virtually every other factor.
Athletes have higher graduation rates, which is a well-documented fact in the NCAA.
There are several ways to increase enrollment through athletics. One is to hire a baseball coach like Mark Standiford, with connections to young baseball players in the Wichita area. He nearly doubled Tabor’s roster size since becoming its coach. The roster is filled with names and former schools that don’t suggest that the student-athlete would have been at Tabor otherwise. That translates into real dollars and institutional survival.
The same thing happened when Tim McCarty turned the football program around nearly a decade ago.
Starting new athletic programs also can increase enrollment and can be done one of two ways. One is to find a benefactor to fund the upfront costs, such as hiring a coach a year in advance, building the facility and buying the equipment, but that can be very expensive and major donors are scarce.
That is, in fact, what Roy Just and Delmer Reimer did when they started the Tabor football program, except for building a new facility, years ago.
Another way is to find a sport with low up-front costs, and then hire a part-time coach, a borrowed facility, low cost uniforms and limited travel, and potentially large rosters of students with few other places they could play their sport.
The ability to appeal to the non-traditional athlete who could become competitive, or at least have fun without having been a high school star would be a major bonus. In other words, you start a bowling program.
Back to the original issue: athletics mean very different things to Tabor, KU, K-State and Wichita State. We can argue about possible misplaced priorities another time, but suffice it to say, Tabor would be in serious trouble without a strong athletic program.