Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) is at a crossroads.
Physically, nestled along the Mississippi River juncture that connects Missouri, Tennessee, and Illinois. But, also, figuratively, as a regional college serving nearly 10,000 students amid a pandemic that’s made it even harder to reach students from rural areas.
Nationally, public four-year universities saw an enrollment dip of 3.3% from spring 2020 to spring 2021, with those in rural settings seeing even larger drops
To try to stem enrollment declines, and better serve the rural students it seeks to attract, the university has tried a number of new tactics.
SEMO was able to increase applications by 13% from 2020 to 2021 by switching its customer relationship management (CRM) tool to Element451, which combines AI and behavior analytics with automated marketing.
Its application can now be easily completed on a smartphone, and the university can automatically accept students without them submitting transcripts.
That’s allowed SEMO to send students their acceptance and scholarship information in just two days, instead of the 25 days it took previously.
“It means the students we serve aren’t waiting on us to get back to them,” says Lenell Hahn, SEMO’s director of admissions. “And it allows us to break down some of the barriers that make it intimidating or challenging to just get admitted to college.”
Because they are disproportionately poorer and less likely than their peers to have family members who attended college, rural students often need that extra time to plan for college.
The fact that the application is mobile-friendly is a boon for rural students who may have limited home internet options.
“Cost continues to be a rising concern,” Hahn says. “We want to let them know immediately that they will be admitted, and at what cost.”
New tech and tactics can only go so far. Last fall, SEMO did see a drop of 200 students, about a 3.3% dip.
But the damage could have been worse if not for its use of new tech. And while adopting digital outreach efforts, the university hasn’t abandoned its physical outreach.
SEMO still visits high schools in its 26-county region, teaching students how to fill out the FAFSA, the federal application for student aid.
It has two off-shoot campuses in rural areas, with degrees that cater to their needs, from psychology and nursing to agriculture and criminal justice.
All these efforts are especially needed in rural areas, where many are directly entering the workforce rather than take on student debt for a degree they feel might not be worth it.
“What we’re seeing is not just the competition of someone choosing another college but also the competition of somebody not choosing college at all,” Hahn says.
She adds that the university’s economic impact study
— which showed students receive back $7.50 in lifetime earnings for every $1 they spend — was commissioned with rural students in mind.
“We want to be able to demonstrate the return on their investment.”