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Recruit & Retain (Washington State University)

Steps for Success

When it comes to Washington State University’s (WSU) dramatic success in diversifying its student body, the numbers are a good place to start.

In 2006, the entering freshman class at WSU totaled 2,699, and the diversity of the entering class measured approximately 15 percent. Within five years, WSU’s enrollment regularly surpasses 4,000, and last fall, 35 percent, or more than a third of our first-year enrollment were minority students, and over 20 percent were the first in their family to attend college. What makes this increase in enrollment all the more remarkable is that we still recruit most of our students from in-state, and the increase comes at a time when the number of high school graduates in Washington has declined significantly.

The steps we have taken to increase the size and diversity of the freshman class are not magical or special. We simply took advantage of WSU’s widespread popularity in the state and instituted recruitment tactics that reflect the high school student population in the state and region. For example:

  • WSU is a popular public research institution with a passionate alumni base. There are literally thousands of students who want to attend WSU. Our recruiters just need to find them and help with their admission applications and process and answer the questions of those who want more information.
  • We invite students and their families to visit WSU because college recruitment is a family decision. WSU is a beautiful campus located in a rural setting. Pullman is a small town that is considered one of the best college towns in the country, and is rated the safest campus in the state. Rather than spend limited state resources on brochures and publicity, we instead have invested resources to help students and their families see the campus and Pullman in person.
  • We have increased the number of student-sponsored recruitment events that bring minority and first-generation students to campus for overnight visits. For many of these students, it is the first time they have had the opportunity to visit a college or university, and the first time they’ve stayed in a campus residence hall. It helps prospective students see themselves in our university environment.
  • In 2008, WSU became an SAT optional university. All students with a high school GPA of 3.5 or higher, or who were ranked in the top 10 percent of their class, are assured admission (provided they have taken a college prep high school curriculum). High school grades are a much better and fairer predictor of academic success than standardized scores. This applies to students from out of state as well.
  • In 2008, we initiated a program called “Imagine U at WSU.” In this program, we visit selected schools in rural, inner city and other underserved areas. We provide workshops, speakers and programs on the value of higher education, the admission and financial aid process, and other subjects needed for college preparation. We also host a dinner meeting with students and their parents to discuss the admission process and college experience.
  • We use theater and performance as a recruitment and college readiness activity. I founded a program called “Performance as Education” (www.performance.wsu.edu) that is centered in high schools with large Latina/o student populations. Students write essays, and then I turn their essays into a working theatrical script. The students are paired with a professional director and other professional theater personnel. The students undergo 10 to 14 days of professional rehearsals culminating in an hour-long, professionally produced play with the students performing the roles they wrote themselves. The end production tours various venues in eastern Washington. Students gain important college readiness skills such as public speaking, self-confidence and validation of their life stories, as well as an affinity for WSU.
  • WSU, in cooperation with the Washington Commission on Hispanic Affairs, hosts a biweekly Spanish radio program broadcast in key regions in Washington. The program, “WSU Conectándote,” is simultaneously streamed on the Internet (http://espanol.wsu.edu) and features interviews, stories and information about WSU and higher education for Washington’s Spanish-speaking community.

In short, we are succeeding because we are deeply committed to access and inclusion, and do not limit ourselves to traditional recruitment approaches. As a public university, we have a responsibility to educate as many people as we can. If we believe a student has potential and has the drive to succeed, we try to find a way to admit them to Washington State University.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

John Fraire, Ph.D., is the vice president for student affairs and enrollment at Washington State University and a commissioner for ArtsWA in the state of Washington.

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