Podcast Interview_Beyond Enrollments Akron

Lessons in Sustainable Growth 

A Conversation with Dr. Steve McKellips, Vice Provost of Enrollment Management at the University of Akron 

Schools like the University of Akron must be increasingly commercially minded. Rather than fight for a diminishing pool of 18–22-year-olds, they are shifting focus back to revenue over headcount and creating sustainable models for growth based on affordability, community investment, retention, and flexible accommodations.  

What was your path to Higher Education?  

My roots started just outside of Green Bay, Wisconsin. I’m from a small town called Kolkata. I’m in that population who ends up in higher ed but didn’t know you could actually work in higher ed when I went to college. 

I was a broadcast major. I wanted to do local sports. I like to crack jokes, and every time I watched the television, the sports guy was making fun of the weather or the weather guy, and that seemed like a place you could go and have fun. And then I interned at CNN Sports in Atlanta during college and learned I have no interest in that space. It’s a lot more cutthroat behind the scenes.  

So, I had to go do something else. I took a job as a recruiter at my alma mater. I went to Marquette University in Milwaukee. I’ve been doing the higher ed game ever since ‘96. 

Who were some of the early influences for you in your career? 

The first person that I would point to would be the gentleman who lived across the hall from me at the time I was an R.A. He was a hall chaplain who got promoted to executive vice provost, but still wanted to live in the residence hall.  

[In my senior year…] My stepfather lost his job. His factory closed down and essentially phased out at the end of the calendar year. I had no resources to come back and pay for my senior year, second semester. I ended up talking to Father Leahy about it. I told him that, you know, I couldn’t believe it. I had to go home. And he said to me, “We don’t send seniors home. So let me make a call.”

And they fixed it, and I was able to finish. It was that simple: we don’t send seniors home. It’s left this mark on me that everybody goes through college as an individual, but they graduate as part of a collective. 

How have things changed for enrollment as you’ve moved into the technology age? 

I started before the Internet and that sounds embarrassing. I remember getting the first Macintosh computer on my desk at Marquette in ‘93, and there was no network. 

Since the Internet’s come out, I can no longer control — although it sounds like a little bit too much power for what I mean – but I can’t control how the person consumes my information. And so, you’ve heard the expression, “Somebody who’s never met a stranger.” In this case, you’ve never met somebody who didn’t know anymore that college was an option. Now everybody’s been thinking about it since they were, you know, three and five years old. 

What are some of the challenges you’re seeing regarding the Enrollment Cliff? 

The cliff is really just the echo of the housing crunch from several years ago. I say the Enrollment Cliff gets a bad rap because people act like [enrollments were] great the year before that. The truth is we’ve been in a declining head count reality going all the way back to the baby boomers. So, this cliff is really just an extra step down to the basement. It’s not like everything was great the day before.  

The pandemic, generally speaking, […] has essentially accelerated the cliff. The pandemic changed some individual decision making about the value of college and the climate. Right now, there’s a lot of “maybe you should look at other alternatives” kind of rhetoric that’s going on. 

What drew you to the role at University of Akron?  

Over the course of the last, maybe, 7 to 10 years of my career, I started to look a little deeper in terms of how a university’s decision making is connected to enrollment and sometimes how those become a little incongruent. Suffice it to say, people talk about enrollment like it’s actually a proxy for revenue. So, things like, hey, admissions person, you need 200 more students.  

But what’s interesting is it doesn’t solve the revenue problems at these institutions. And so, I found myself saying, “But I hit your target,” or even if I hit your target…  I spent the last seven years recalculating all that math. And what I learned is you don’t need 200 students. You need this much revenue. Why do you care how many students there are? 

Well, when I took this job, I asked two questions. Ask the question to the provost and to the president. And I said, look, I’ve studied the last decade of your common data set. I know what’s going on there. Let me just ask you a question. Do you have a revenue problem or a headcount problem? And they both said to me, we have a revenue problem.  

And I said, great, then I’ll come because I can fix that. But if you just said it’s a headcount problem, then I know you don’t even know what your problems are, and I can’t fix it because you won’t ever let me have the conversation about what’s really in play, which is – you have to have enough money to pay your bills. 

Tell us about the new vision for the University in your region. 

What I think is most significant about it is we’ve returned to the mission as the driving force of our strategy. And I credit our president and our provost, who have both been here two or three years now. That was their big challenge to the campuses. We are a campus of opportunity for northeast Ohio. We are going to live and die with this northeast Ohio environment. We have always served them. They are our reality. We’ve gone back to our roots and anchored ourselves back in the community.  

We have a big affordability program that launched recently. We launched our Make Akron Possible grant for students who are from families who have AGIs of $50,000 or less, where now the complete value of tuition and fees is just covered. We recently launched our Smart Choice scholarship platform where students who maybe were considering the university, who went elsewhere and decided that it wasn’t for them, would come back. We’re just going to give them their award back that we were going to give them in the first place. Usually transfers forfeit their financial aid package.  

So, we’ve simply tried to be the place that’s affordable, and the opportunity is still there. Let’s just make this work for everybody.  

How are you bringing a private university mindset into a public school?  

Public institutions have just started finally understanding that we’re tuition dependent, also. And if we’re tuition dependent for our existence, we are private schools. Where I think the difference between public and private institutions is most significant is those who are tuition dependent know everything about every dollar that comes into their organization, where it came from, who gave it to them, why they gave it to them, and what do we need to do to make sure we get it back?  

What enhancements to the student experience help with that retention?  

We saw that the 2022 class had a 19% melt when it came through and ended up with about a 67% retention rate. And we had historically about a 69% [retention rate], so a couple of ticks lower. But in higher ed numbers, a 2% drop is enormous, and we didn’t know why.  

So, Dr. Fedearia Nicholson-Sweval (Vice Provost for Student Pathways)’s team studied it. What we learned is that the population has been largely educated in an online format. And that population, during the pandemic, stopped searching for colleges. [They didn’t know] how to get themselves recruited to college. We all had to start over. What Dr. Nicholson-Sweval did is completely re-engineer the onboarding experience so the population that came in 2022 had a very different experience. That group had only 12% melt, and a retention rate of 72%. What we learned in one year is a tremendous number of people want that type of flexibility coming out of the pandemic, and being able to make those adjustments really, really mattered. And it mattered immediately. Our students needed us to be able to provide flexibility, and they responded by staying – like we thought they would. 

What does the future of the University of Akron look like?  

I think the part that I’m most excited about for the University of Akron, is that the changes that we put in place have changed the trajectory. And so, you know, we’ll maybe never be 30,000 students again. We believe that 16-17,000 students is probably our sweet spot. If the university can be financially viable in that spot and basically get everything back to working the way that it’s supposed to, we really think the sky’s the limit for our students.  

Hear the full interview at Level Agency’s Test. Learn. Grow. Podcast. 


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