Over the past year, colleges and universities have faced unprecedented challenges in trying to recruit students. Across every sector, with the exception of graduate programs, enrollment numbers have fallen, according to updates regularly provided the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The individual institutions that have managed to boost enrollment or have seen spikes in applications, are doing more than just meeting student needs. They are often being disruptors by launching innovative majors, providing access to all, and creating straighter pathways to nascent careers.
At the Rochester Institute of Technology, a combination of factors has led to a record number of students interested in the past two years. RIT recently reported that it has received 230 more deposits this year than at this point in 2020, with an undergraduate class projected to be more than 3,300 – a sizable feat given the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. To get there, its leadership not only has kept its eyes on the future but also embraced it, quickly pivoting to changes happening in society.
A key embrace has been the launch of several “new economy” majors – emerging fields for the current and next generation of students that give them the skills necessary to slide into unfilled jobs being posted by forward-thinking employers.
“We are in, and will continue to be in, an era of disruption where employment markets are changing and connectedness to innovation is becoming a requirement in all areas of employment and scholarship,” says Ian Mortimer, RIT’s vice president of enrollment management and associate provost for adult and online education. “RIT’s future-focused programs create amazing opportunities for our students to emerge as leaders in technical, creative, research, and services industries. The world’s needs and RIT’s capacities are nearly perfectly aligned.”
Those programs include supply chain management and packaging science – think about the acceleration and impact of platforms such as Amazon – as well as new media, robotics, imaging science and human-centered computing. They are just a few of the fields of the jobs of tomorrow but ones attracting new students. Traditional majors, as noted in the Clearinghouse’s most recent spring report, are on the decline and not likely to get them where they want to go.
RIT says its shift to implement and highlight those programs has made a difference.
“This is a testament to the trajectory RIT is on and our distinctive mindset around what it means to be educated in the 21st century, which has never been more appreciated,” Mortimer says. “Graduates need to have the skills to stay continuously relevant and have the flexibility, adaptability, and knowledge that allows them to flex in any direction their field requires.”
The drivers of success
Of course, the new economy majors are not the only driver of interest and success at RIT. It ranks in the top third of all national universities, according to U.S. News and World Report, and is also highly rated in five other key categories that resonate with students:
- Cooperative education. For years, RIT has pitched its co-op program, which allows students to work full- and part-time in their fields, gaining on-the-job experience. Even during the early stages of the pandemic, more than 1,000 students still took part in working for 675 different companies. The connection to employment opportunities is critical when students are exploring institutions, and most co-op appointments are paid, so that helps offsets student costs.
- Global reach. The university’s study abroad program stretches to 60 countries and offers 600 different programs. RIT has several campus partners overseas: in China, Kosovo, Dubai and Croatia.
- Accessibility. It is one of the top campuses in the nation to serve those with hearing loss – 90% receive financial assistance – and it boasts the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, the first technical college of its kind in the world.
- Diversity. “RIT also continues to make strides diversifying its student body with more women and underrepresented students,” says Marian Nicoletti, assistant vice president and dean of admissions. “Geographically, 53% of the freshman class will come from outside New York, with students from 49 states and 38 countries represented.” It also has 38 faculty members and more than 700 student members on campus dedicated to seeing through diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
- Value: RIT is ranked by U.S. News No. 33 overall in best value among 179 colleges and universities. Its 13:1 student faculty ratio, its positioning with employers through the co-op program, academic prowess and propensity to meet financial need (more than 70% receive need-based grants) are just some of the reasons why students are looking at RIT and others, including its neighbor, the University of Rochester.
Its test optional application policy also has helped RIT attract a new pool of students, and officials notes that the university’s focus on GPA and other variables have made for a more well-rounded group of students being enrolled. And, they say, test scores being reported actually are better than they were before.
But it’s the new majors, combined with those real-life working opportunities that perhaps have become an inflection point at RIT. That reality – meeting students where they truly want to be – also could be a linchpin for driving up numbers at other institutions.
“Why aren’t students thinking differently about what they study? I think the answer is because we haven’t helped them do it,” Mortimer says. “The college search system has not kept pace with the academic evolution occurring at some colleges and universities. Let’s challenge the status quo of how we encourage young people to evaluate academic programs. … They don’t want to be pigeonholed. They think big and don’t see boundaries.”