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'Sweeping changes' to MSU admissions as applications decrease

January 16, 2019
Students walk in front of Brody Hall on Sept. 26, 2018.
Students walk in front of Brody Hall on Sept. 26, 2018. —
Photo by Anntaninna Biondo | The State News

Though enrollment for the fall 2018 semester went up, applications fell and fewer students were admitted to the university in comparison to the previous academic year.

Merit scholarships, which are used as incentives for admitted students to make the decision to enroll, were unusually distributed.

After Michigan State announced that the 2018 incoming freshman class was its “largest and most diverse” class in university history, the director of admissions was dismissed.

The university is undergoing “sweeping changes” to the Office of Admissions and to the Academic Orientation Program.  

A look at the fall 2018 incoming freshman class

MSU welcomed its largest and most diverse class in fall 2018 — 8,395 incoming freshmen students — even after applications and admissions fell.

According to the Fall 2018 Enrollment Report, 3,014 fewer applications were received for fall 2018 than fall 2017. For the first time in at least 10 years, fewer students were admitted to MSU than the previous year.

But, more students enrolled than ever before.

A total of 33,129 students applied to MSU for fall 2018 — compared to 36,143 applications received for fall 2017 and 37,480 applications received for fall 2016, according to the Fall 2018 Enrollment Report. 

Applications to MSU have not been this low since fall 2013, according to the report.

Additionally, the ratio of students who applied and were accepted increased from 71.5 percent for fall 2017 to 77.7 percent for fall 2018. The percentage of students who applied and were accepted to MSU hasn’t been this high in at least 10 years. 

Even though the admit ratio increased, average GPA, ACT and SAT scores for fall 2018 incoming freshman class all increased in comparison to the previous year. 

It was first announced that MSU’s fall 2018 incoming freshman class would be the university’s “largest and most diverse” incoming freshman class in history on May 9 in a university press release

The press release predicted over 8,400 incoming freshmen students would attend the university based off of how many students had paid their enrollment deposits by May 1, 2018. The incoming class ended up consisting of 8,395 students. 

The potential impact of Larry Nassar

Jim Cotter, former director for admissions and recruitment, said he doesn’t think news surrounding the university's mishandling of reports against ex-MSU doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse had an impact on in-state applications for fall 2018.

Although the university received fewer applications and admitted fewer students for fall 2018 compared to the previous year, Cotter said the majority of students decide where they are going to apply during their junior or senior year of high school and most apply in the fall, especially in-state students.

Cotter said news surrounding MSU could have impacted the yield rate for fall 2018 — or the amount of students who accepted the university’s offer after they were admitted and decided to enroll. The out-of-state student yield rate for fall 2018 slightly decreased from previous years, he said. 

“I think the challenges we faced last year — I think it affected our domestic out-of-state yield," he said. "I don’t think it impacted our in-state application numbers because the percentage of high school graduates in the state of Michigan ... that applied actually went up in 2018 over 2017.”

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If the news surrounding the university in the spring were going to have an impact on in-state applications, Cotter said he would be more inclined to think it would affect this year, or the students applying for the fall of 2019.

On a petition regarding the Healing Assistance Fund that circulated over break, many parents indicated they were ashamed of being alumni and did not want their children or relatives to attend the university. 

"My daughter has wanted to attend MSU from the moment she knew what college was,” James Armstrong, an MSU alumnus, wrote next to his signature on the petition. “Can't support her attending until a real commitment to recovery and responsibility are made."

The decline of international student applications could be from the the elimination of the Mastercard Scholarship at MSU, which provides scholarships “talented yet financially disadvantaged youth — especially those in Africa,” Cotter said.

The partnership between the Mastercard Foundation and MSU began in 2012. With it, $45 million in funding from the foundation supported 185 scholars at MSU throughout the nine-year program, according to a university press release.

The Mastercard Foundation announced the end of its partnership with MSU in April 2018 because of “extensive media reporting about issues” involving the university’s mishandling of reports regarding Nassar. 

“The Mastercard Foundation is dedicated to providing a safe environment for young people who participate in our programs,” the foundation’s statement, published by the Lansing State Journal, said. 

Other possible reasons for the decline

Cotter worked in the MSU Office of Admissions for more than 34 years before he was dismissed from his position as executive director of admissions and recruitment in August 2018. He said many factors play into how the university predicts the number of students that will ultimately attend MSU.

He said demographic changes in Michigan, a decline in the number of graduates from Michigan high schools, played a role in the number of students who decided to apply to MSU for the fall 2018 semester. 

Interim President John Engler also said this decline will have an impact in declining applications in the coming years. 

“Over the next decade, we’re looking at a 16 percent decline in the number of graduates coming out of Michigan high schools,” Engler said. “Michigan State admits about 5 percent of what you’d call the graduating class of the state of Michigan. Even if we held that 5 percent at a constant, we’d get fewer students because of the decline in the numbers.”

Engler said this declining demographic possibly had an impact in the decline in applications for the fall 2018 semester. 

“I was much more focused on who was getting admitted,” he said. 

Distribution of merit scholarships 

MSU offered the most scholarship money to incoming freshman students for the 2018-19 academic year than ever before, but distributed the money among the least amount of students since the 2014-15 incoming freshman class.

The university offered just over $8,600,000 among 1,049 incoming students for the 2018-19 academic year, compared to nearly $7,400,000 among 1,408 incoming students for the 2017-18 academic year and nearly $7,600,000 among 1,479 incoming students for the 2016-17 academic year. 

Associate Director of Financial Aid Val Meyers said merit scholarships act as an incentive for admitted students to accept the university’s offer and decide to enroll.

“(Merit scholarships) don’t have anything to do with financial need," she said. "They’re really trying to say, 'OK, you have this high school GPA at a certain point and you have these test scores at a certain point, so we want to give you a financial incentive to come here.’”

Meyers said the university’s intention is to continue to increase merit and need-based scholarships at MSU in the future. 

Director of admissions dismissed after “largest and most diverse” class announced

Provost June Youatt said Cotter’s dismissal was due to the Office of Admissions “undertaking a set of sweeping changes,” but Cotter said he was the one who brought these changes to the administration’s attention.

“Everything that they’re talking about in terms of the declining demographic in the state of Michigan is something I’ve talked about since 2010,” Cotter said. “The demographic decline in the state of Michigan is not sneaking up on anyone. It’s something that we’ve talked about in enrollment management circles for years.”

Youatt said these changes to the Office of Admissions were the reason for Cotter’s dismissal as executive director for admissions and recruitment. 

Cotter said he did not receive an explanation for his dismissal and he still doesn’t know the reason why he was dismissed.

“I wasn’t given any answer to what had happened,” Cotter said. “But I’m pleased to be at Michigan State … I just want to help in any way I can.”

After being dismissed Aug. 7, Cotter said he was offered his current position in the Athletic Department by MSU Athletic Director Bill Beekman on Oct. 11 and has been working there since Oct. 17.

In a letter to the Lansing State Journal and other news outlets on Aug. 30, Cotter expressed he was “shocked” by his dismissal and that the university didn’t accurately describe how or why he was dismissed.

"On this historic first day of class at Michigan State University I am compelled to respond to this afternoon’s poorly constructed media release regarding my dismissal as executive director of Admissions and Recruitment at MSU,” Cotter said in the letter. “With the largest and most diverse freshman cohort in University history having moments ago finished their first day of classes, I am proud of all our Admissions Team accomplished under my leadership.” 

Cotter said switching to the Common Application and becoming more competitive cost-wise to out of state students were both things the Office of Admissions talked about for many years under his leadership. 

MSU Spokesperson Emily Guerrant said the university does not have any further comments about Cotter's dismissal. Guerrant said Provost June Youatt also does not have anything to add to what has been said previously about Cotter’s dismissal.

Engler said Cotter is still a “valuable part of the university” and that’s why he has a position in the Athletic Department. 

“Bill Beekman made the decision … Cotter is a former letter winner in baseball, pre his part of a lot of the athletic programs,” Engler said. “I heard he can do a lot of public speaking. ... He has a great personality, so that’s being put to work over at the Athletic Department.”

"Sweeping changes” to the Office of Admissions

The university has started outlining and making several changes to the Office of Admissions and the Academic Orientation Program, or AOP.

Mary Beth Heeder, previous director of AOP, no longer works within the program as of the fall 2018 semester. 

Deputy Spokesperson Heather Young said the change in Heeder’s job focus was made mutually by Heeder and Interim Dean of Undergraduate Studies Mark Largent.

Youatt said the changes currently being made to the Office of Admissions will allow the university to reach out to “more and different prospective students.”

She said the problem facing all universities in Michigan is the decline in students who are graduating from Michigan high schools, which is why the Office of Admissions is undergoing changes. 

Youatt said the Office of Admissions will use better data analytics to recruit students with the proper academic preparation and financial means to attend the university.

“Increased use of analytics, greater cooperation among colleges relative to both attracting students to come here and onboarding them when they arrive,” Engler said. “We’ve had six years of declining enrollment of foreign students, and we’ll change that trend as well.”

In MSU’s Fall 2018 Alumni Magazine, Engler said out of state tuition is also being addressed by “offering new scholarship incentives to domestic students."

Reasons the Office of Admissions was changed

“Our admissions office, historically, has done a really, really good job,” Youatt said. “The changes aren’t because they have done anything poorly, it’s because the world in which they’re recruiting is changing, so the admissions office has to change." 

Engler said there will also be a “complete redesign” of the orientation program to have a more “collaborative and integrative approach.”

Deputy Spokesperson Heather Young said Largent assigned four people to serve as the interim directors of the orientation program after Heeder left her position.

Throughout the fall semester, the four people led a series of workshops to gather information from faculty, staff, students and the administration to “re-imagine” MSU’s student orientation program, Young said. In November, they presented a plan to revise AOP, now called the New Student Orientation, or NSO.

The new program will aim to “make it even more effective in helping improve undergraduate student learning and success,” Young said via email.

Young said Largent is hoping to conduct a search and hire a new director of orientation this spring.

As for the director of admissions, Youatt said the job’s permanent position is currently posted and a new director will be announced sometime in the spring. 

Korine Wawrzynski, assistant dean of academic initiatives, started taking a role in the changes within the orientation program this fall. She said the university has already held listening sessions to gain insight on what students, faculty and staff want to see in the program.

“There’s lots of transition happening at MSU,” she said. 


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