Wheaton College enrolled 595 new students in the class of 2027 this fall, raising administrators’ hopes that the college could be returning to pre-pandemic enrollment and staving off a feared budget deficit.
The new class, which splits into 555 first-year and 50 transfer students, exceeds the college’s goal of 500 first-year and 50 transfers, said Chief Enrollment Officer Silvio Vazquez.
Before the pandemic, there were an average of 600 new students every year. There were 616 new students comprising the incoming class in 2019. In 2020, that number dropped to 483 as many students nationwide chose to delay college, or not to go at all.
Enrollment rebounded to 586 in 2021, but fell again in 2022 to 504.
“The class of 2022 was the most severely impacted class when it came to visiting colleges when they were in high school,” said Vazquez. “The class of 2021 had opportunities when they were juniors.” Vazquez said he expects that, barring unforeseen circumstances, a goal of 600 total new students each year will be sustainable for the college’s revenue needs.
Last year, the college underwent a series of budget cuts, which was predicted to affect 42 faculty and staff. In a Feb. 16 email to students, during the height of stress around the college’s finances, President Ryken and Vice President for Student Development Paul Chelsen said the cuts were intended to avert a projected budget gap created largely by reduced enrollment revenue and high inflation.
Financially, this fall’s new student enrollment is on target with the college’s needs. Chad Rynbrandt, vice president for finance and operations, said the class of 2027 will bring in enough net tuition revenue after financial aid to keep the budget balanced.
“This class of students provides the amount of net tuition revenue we were hoping we would get,” said Rynbrandt. “From a financial standpoint, we’re right on track with the plan that we put in place to get rid of that potential budget deficit.”
Even before the pandemic’s onset, higher education experts nationwide were concerned about the effects of “the enrollment cliff,” the decline in births following the 2008 recession. When fewer babies are born per year, eventually, there are fewer people graduating high school and searching for colleges.
Wheaton College has been preparing for the demographic cliff in recent years. The college joined the Common App in 2017, hired Vazquez as its first Chief Enrollment Management Officer in January 2018, and created the Integrated Marketing Communications Team in 2020. That team is a collaboration between Vazquez’s office and Marketing Communications, headed up by Chief Marketing Communications Officer Joe Moore.
Both Vasquez and Moore said that the college had not done much marketing prior to his arrival, but that the leadership recognized that the upcoming demographic cliff required the college to reconsider its marketing approach.
“Joining the Common App exposed us to more students, but also to a much more cluttered environment because students are applying to more colleges than ever before,” said Vazquez.
To sort through the clutter, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions began seeking out students more specifically by buying names from the College Board and the ACT — a practice commonly used in college admissions and known as Student Search.
Moore’s and Vazquez’s offices now work together on what they call the “enrollment funnel,” a common approach colleges take to broaden the application pool. In this strategy, a college first narrows down which rising juniors and seniors in high school may be a good fit. The marketing office advertising focuses on students that come up during the search process, and then those who inquire about the institution or start applications receive increasingly specialized attention. By the time students start an application, the enrollment officers are the primary handlers of their cases and will provide individualized assistance.
The new advertising initiative proved to be more efficient for the teams involved, said Moore. It included an office reorganization for Marketing Communications, hyper-targeted digital marketing, search engine optimization, surveys for admitted students and more individualized emails.
“We are now able to do these activities in concert with each other at very high speed,” Moore said. “Every year that we pursue the marketing strategy provides further baseline data for us to measure what works and then refine.”
Vazquez is optimistic about the college’s enrollment outlook going forward. All international student outreach trips are set to resume, he said, and there has been more enrollment than ever from the BRIDGE program, a pre-college summer program which brings first-generation, low-income, and under-represented ethnic minority students to campus for a few weeks out of their two summers before college.
Vazquez, who serves on the advisory boards of several Christian high schools, emphasized the importance of increasing the officers’ travel again and establishing rapport with high schools.
“It’s about building relationships, making connections and building our networks from a grassroots level,” he said. “It’s about going to the right schools and knowing where our feeder schools are.”
The Wheaton College Summer Institute, which gives high school students the opportunity to experience life at Wheaton College, is another contributor to recruitment and recently wrapped up its second summer. Of the 116 institute participants in the inaugural class, 70 were rising seniors. 44 of those 70 are currently enrolled as first-year students at Wheaton.
“We believe we’re on a strong path and we’ll continue to refine our materials with the appropriate financial support to navigate some difficult periods, should they come on,” Moore said.