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News Clips 09/16/2013
Identify a niche to boost FAMU's enrollment
Source: Tallahassee Democrat, 09/12/13
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By Byron Dobson
In August, Florida A&M University’s interim president, Larry Robinson, marveled at the fact that four students among the graduates in the summer commencement were earning their doctoral degrees in physics.
At that time, Robinson, a science scholar himself, observed, “It’s really amazing when you think about it, to have that many minority Ph.D.’s in physics graduating at one time. It’s a testament to the education of our faculty here, to create doctorates in a field in which these individuals are highly unrepresented.”
Florida A&M, which is in a rebuilding mode, continues to make great strides in attracting students to its science-related courses, as well as other noted majors. Its faculty researchers have been awarded millions of dollars in grants from top science research institutions.
In fact, in recent years, the university has earned great recognition in environmental sciences and from grants delivered to its research programs in health and sciences.
Yet, is FAMU capitalizing on those milestones and therefore using those achievements to market the university to some of the brightest high-school seniors out there?
Or, how about its noted School of Business and Industry? Or, its School of Architecture? Environmental Sciences?
A recent news report on the declining enrollment at FAMU must be of major concern to Robinson and his team, especially with the fact that FAMU is so heavily dependent on student enrollment, and therefore tuition money, for the university’s overall operating costs.
Add this as another challenge for Robinson, who has shouldered the burden of leading the university through a tough period of challenges on many fronts, both internally and externally.
The university has been forced to walk a tightrope on increasing tuition costs, but at the same time, new tuition money is desperately needed. In addressing the decline in enrollment, Robinson pointed to several factors, some of them out of his control, such as the federal government’s tighter restrictions on student loans, including the much debated decision by the Obama administration to tighten the qualifications for the PLUS loan program. Not only did that hit Florida A&M hard, but it also has had a negative impact on colleges and universities across the country, notably historically black colleges and universities.
A recent report in Diverse: Issues in Higher Education noted that, since the fall of 2012, HBCUs have felt the brunt of the PLUS program revisions, and estimated that it caused about 28,000 HBCU students to be denied loans. That translated into a loss of about $150 million, according to the Diverse report.
So much pressure was put on the Obama administration that the U.S. Department of Education recently responded by saying that some criteria would be changed, through an appeal process, to make the loans more accessible to parents who are faced with small amounts of debt.
That’s part of the external challenge that FAMU faces.
Internally, I wonder if the university shouldn’t put more of its efforts into marketing itself to capitalize on its core majors in an effort to recruit more freshman next year. This year’s enrollment stands at 10,786. It was only a few years ago that the previous administration was shooting for an enrollment of 15,000 students.
Mary Beth Gasman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and noted authority on HBCUs, is constantly in the midst of discussions on black universities. She says those that are improving in enrollment are those that are diversifying their student populations and promoting new programs.
FAMU, she said, has enjoyed a strong reputation in the past, through its recruitment of National Achievement Scholars and its noted business school, but it needs time to turn itself around.
And define what it wants to be.
“I think that FAMU has been hurt by the hazing scandal,” she said. “The institution will rebound, but right now it’s taking a hit. This is typical in higher education. FAMU has to re-establish trust with various communities.”
As for enrollment issues, Gasman said, “I don’t think there is a trend across HBCUs — some of them have had increases in enrollment; Jackson State and Paul Quinn had big jumps. In order to maintain and increase enrollments, institutions have to have an institutional niche — something they are known for — with data to back it up.”
HBCUs, she said, “in particular need to show why they are valuable.”
FAMU got some help just recently when it was named one of the 10 best HBCUs in the country by U.S. News and World Report. Leading the list were noted universities such as Spelman, Morehouse, Howard and Xavier.
Other top rankings have come in from The Princeton Review and other organizations that rank colleges and universities.
And, while these ratings are reason for applause, Robinson now must look at how he can capitalize on those gains and turn that into gold on the recruitment tours.