Administrators at Sul Ross State University in Alpine recently announced a 3 percent raise across campus, a reward, they said, for hitting increased enrollment goals, which may be the beginning of a turnaround for the school.
Less than one year ago, a steep drop in enrollment prompted some high-profile members of the Alpine community to begin agitating for a move out of the Texas State University System. Following a nearly 10 percent drop in enrollment from 2011 to 2012, the school was at its lowest enrollment level in years.
The latest numbers reflect the totals as of Sept. 13, the 12th class day of the semester, which is when public universities are required to conduct a census of their registered students. And they indicate that the lost ground has been largely made up.
Enrollment numbers submitted to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board are watched closely, because they largely determine how state funds are appropriated. More students also means more tuition revenue.
"Enrollments drive budgets," Sul Ross President Ricardo Maestas said. He said that he had set a goal of 1,920 students for this fall — nearly 200 more than were enrolled at this time last year. The university exceeded that goal by 24 students, making the student population about 12 percent larger than it was in 2012.
Maestas credited the work of the university's admissions and recruitment staff — nearly 80 percent of which is new, he said — who have spent the last year overhauling what he referred to as the school's "antiquated" approach to recruitment.
"We were working in the 19th century," Maestas said. "Now, we've brought it up to the 21st century."
That effort has been spearheaded by Denise Groves, vice president for enrollment, whom Maestas hired last year from Tarleton State University in Stephenville.
Groves said she had noticed some differences in selling her new school. "There, it was where are students going to go instead of Tarleton?" she said. "Here, the question is whether they're going to go to college at all. So it's a different message."
Sul Ross had never engaged in "prospecting" for students, she said, a process that involves requesting that standardized testing companies send lists of students with their scores and their demographic information to indicate a potential match with the university. The school also had not used software to track interactions and relationships with prospective students.
By targeting recruitment initiatives and engaging in more collaborative outreach efforts, the university increased first-time freshman applications by more than 30 percent. Graduate applications increased by 24 percent. The admission rate from those pools also grew by 67 percent for first-time freshman applicants and by 59 percent for graduate school applicants.
First-year students saw the biggest jump in enrollment — more than 570, compared with fewer than 375 last year, an increase of more than 50 percent.
The number of seniors enrolled at the university dropped about 20 percent, which Maestas attributed, in part, to job opportunities in nearby oil fields.
He said he hopes to see the growth continue by about 100 to 150 students per year until the university reaches a student population of about 2,500, at which point it would need to consider building new facilities.
"Out here, it's never going to be phenomenal growth," Groves said. "But I think there's enough room for steady growth in the El Paso to San Antonio area. We plan to take everything we did this year, perfect it and then move on to other areas that still need attention."
Administrators hope the growth will ease some of the concerns in the community, though there are indications that enrollment may not be the silver bullet to improve community relations. "There is some discontent," said Randy Jackson, an Alpine resident who is on the board of the alumni association. "It's not a thing where we can say that we're up in enrollment, therefore the world is fine again. There's more to it than that."
Maestas acknowledged that when it comes to compensation, the 3 percent raise made possible by the enrollment bump is only a start. "We really need to catch up," he said. "We're probably at somewhere around 88 percent compared to our peers in terms of faculty salaries."
Despite a vocal push from a small group of community leaders, a move to a new system proved to be a nonstarter during the legislative session this year. Such a switch would ultimately be up to lawmakers, but none of them took up the issue in the regular session or any of the three subsequent special sessions. So for now, Sul Ross remains a member — a steadily growing member, its leaders hope — of the Texas State system.