Bethel, private colleges found stability during COVID

Rafael Garcia
Topeka Capital-Journal
Bethel Students packed school kits to ship overseas, at Mennonite Central Committee Central States headquarters in North Newton during a service day last September. The school is one of the just 28 percent of colleges to see an enrollment increase this year.

Bethel College experienced something very few colleges in the United States experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic — an increase in enrollment. 

"Our enrollment increased about 2.5%," said Jon Gering, president of the school. "Nationally, only about 28% of colleges and universities experienced enrollment increases in the fall of 2021."

In a year where most colleges have seen a drop in students because of the high school senior class of 2020 skipping or forgoing post-secondary education, Kansas’ private colleges bucked that trend and either kept headcounts stable or found ways to attract more students onto their campuses.

And while not necessarily looking specifically to grow, it’s a trend that the colleges see as a chance to introduce more high school students to what a private, independent education could do for them.

According to Heidi Hoskinson, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Bethel, the effort started with communication early in the process of student recruitment. 

"We communicated early and often with prospective families about our plans to address COVID-19 challenges," Hoskinson said. "President Gering helped lead an Emergency Response Team and a Reopening Task Force that prioritized safety and committed to in-person learning, whenever safely possible."

Those efforts involved the entire campus community, even as that community was scattered due to online classes and precautions taken to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

"Other tactics including hosting virtual events for students and their parents, increased communications via a wide variety of media and the engagement of all members of the Bethel campus community in recruitment and retention efforts made our enrollment increase a reality," Hoskinson said. 

It's a story that played out in similar fashion just up the road at McPherson College — 30 miles away via I-135. 

Christi Hopkins still remembers fielding the calls and talking over Zoom in spring and summer 2020 with parents who were desperate to know if their high school seniors would be safe at McPherson College in central Kansas.

The college was still figuring out its own response, but Hopkins, the vice president for enrollment management at the private college, still felt comfortable in reassuring those parents that yes, the college would do everything it could to keep its small student body safe amid the pandemic.

"We were able to say with confidence that we would take care of their students," Hopkins said. "There's always uncertainty when you send your children away, but to send them away during a pandemic is so much more uncertain."

But if COVID-19 anxieties kept some would-have-been freshmen from setting foot on college campuses this past fall, the pandemic also led to an increase in out-of-state students at private colleges like McPherson College, which saw a 6.1% surge in that student group.

Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, total undergraduate headcount at 20 private colleges, which are part of the Kansas Independent College Association, actually increased, from 14,047 students to 14,379 students (a 2.1% increase). In comparison, fall headcount numbers at the state universities fell by 3.5% over that same time period, from 94,630 to 91,282 students.

Out-of-state students saw Kansas as a pandemic 'oasis'

Matt Lindsey, KICA president, said he believes the phenomenon of better-than-expected enrollment at the private colleges is likely because of a few particular reasons.

First, Kansas' independent colleges weren't immune to the same downward trend in Kansas high school students' college-going rate, which was exacerbated by the effect the pandemic had on first-year freshman enrollment rates all around the country.

But any trends down in enrollment were buoyed by a significant increase in the number of out-of-state students, who Lindsey said might have seen the more rural Kansas as an "oasis" during spring and summer 2020, when students either finalized or switched plans for their 2020-2021 college years.

Of the 20 colleges in KICA, 18 participate in intercollegiate sports as well. Lindsey said that could have also helped attract student-athletes to institutions where they would be more likely to actually compete and use their athletics scholarships.

All but one of the Kansas private colleges — Newman University competing in NCAA Division II — play in relatively smaller associations and leagues. That's in comparison to some of the bigger college athletic conferences, which faced significant uncertainty as to whether their seasons would actually take place.

"We get a lot of kids who go to school and want to continue to play sports, but they're not going to be NCAA DI athletes," Lindsey said. "They want to use their sports to go to college, but they're not using sports as their road to their future as much as they're using it as their tool to get a college degree."

Additionally, many students at the private colleges also attend on performance-based scholarships for their skills in music, theater and dance.

"The past year suggests, for many reasons, that a strong, liberal arts education is increasingly valuable," Hoskinson said. "The admissions staff continued to highlight that value and, I believe, families understood the short-term and long-term benefits of attending Bethel College."

Another aspect that Lindsey says he thinks helped Kansas' private colleges keep enrollment level was that the private colleges — which tend to be a fraction of the size of state universities like K-State and KU — offer a smaller, more personal atmosphere that some students sought during the pandemic year.

Much of that is because 19 of the 20 KICA colleges are rooted in some sort of Christian faith origin, which most have held to a degree in more modern years. That has helped make the campuses, which could be states away from students' families, feel more like home during an uncertain year, Lindsey said.

Even beyond the faith-based element, some students — but particularly first-generation and low-income students, like many Latino students in southwest Kansas — likely wanted a college education at an institution that felt more like a family and where they would be less likely to feel lost among a sea of students, Lindsey said.  

Why more out-of-state students could lead to a pipeline effect

As Kansas' state universities have faced decreasing enrollment over the past several years, one strategy is to offer lower tuition for students from certain states.

While that may seem counterintuitive to a university's financial health because of reduced tuition revenue, it is actually a strategic gamble that by making inroads into new markets of high school students or bolstering ties in existing ones, any short-term revenue loss will ultimately lead to increased numbers of students and their tuition dollars in subsequent years.

But while the state universities take on some risk that reduced enrollment strategy might not pay off, Kansas' private colleges see a chance to benefit from the unanticipated increase in out-of-state enrollment this past year. Headcount enrollment at their Kansas campuses increased from 41.1% in fall 2019 to 48% in fall 2020.

"Once you see a school start to have a few students from an out-of-state community, and they tell the experience of how good an experience they had at a school like the University of St. Mary. ... Word starts to get around their peers, and that starts to feed itself," Lindsey said.

That can also be the case when the colleges are of a certain denomination, like Manhattan Christian College, which has a sizable population of students from Arizona who come from the college's denomination.

Drawing students to small-town Kansas is hard. Keeping them can be harder.

There are several stages to the recruitment and admissions process, starting in high school. A prospective student must first apply, be admitted, and commit to the school before the most important step of all — actually attending the school.

But the following step is retention, and that can be more difficult for the private colleges, which are mostly in rural or sparsely populated parts of the state, Lindsey said.

That challenge is especially true for athletes, who sometimes come to the schools from urban cities where there might be more amenities.

"You might come out of Dallas or St. Louis, and you end up in Salina," he said. "It might not be what you think you're getting. Or you might go from Dallas to Hillsboro, Kansas, where you might think that you like the school, but it's 30 minutes to the nearest Walmart or there isn't a Starbucks nearby. Maybe it's not what you thought it would be."

It can be a culture shock that leads some students to leave the private colleges in search of more familiar options, he said.

Students worked with Dave Kreider (left) on the ongoing Tatarian honeysuckle eradication project on the Kauffman Museu during a service day for Bethel College students in September.

"But I think as a whole, our enrollment is probably stickier because most students know what they're getting when they get here, and you can't disappear," Lindsey said. "The colleges are small enough that it's really hard to slip through the cracks."

It's that small-town, family-like feel of the private colleges that Hopkins, the McPherson College vice president for enrollment, says sticks out to most prospective students and tends to be the biggest factor in a student's decision to attend colleges like McPherson.

That feeling can help override students' apprehension to factors like sticker-shock to tuition. At first glance, the college's $39,900 annual price tag might seem out-of-reach to students, Hopkins said, but on average, students only pay about half of that after various discounts and scholarships given by the university, bringing the cost of attendance to a comparable level to public institutions. 

But with more students having tried education at private colleges like McPherson, Hopkins and Lindsey believe there's room to grow Kansas' private colleges' profile, especially in emphasizing a more intimate and relational environment on their campuses.

"Before students are here, it can sometimes be a challenge, with them not understanding what our communities are, since you have to be on campus to experience it all," Hopkins said. "But once we get them on campus, we can show them who we are."

— Chad Frey, Newton Kansan, contributed to this report