A new four-year graduation guarantee and an increased emphasis on recruiting students from Omaha helped Midland University attract its largest freshman class in the school's 130-year history, officials say.
This fall, Midland welcomed 364 freshmen, a 32 percent increase over last year. The private university in Fremont, Neb., also added 120 transfer students.
That brings its tally of new students to 484, up from 366 last year and 208 in 2010. Total enrollment this fall is 1,097, the highest in more than a decade.
Midland President Ben Sasse attributes the growth to a program announced last year promising that students who agree to certain conditions will graduate in four years — or the school will cover the cost of any additional tuition.
The college doesn't have survey data to verify Sasse's hunch, but he said students and parents anecdotally tell him that's why they chose Midland over other schools.
For the past year, the college has aggressively marketed its four-year guarantee. Midland spent about $150,000 to promote the program, more than any other marketing effort in the past.
Sasse said a woman approached him at a recent basketball game to talk about the program.
“She grabbed me by the cheeks and said, ‘That four-year commitment is great! My grandson is going to Midland, and that is why.' He needs to get his work done on time. It seems to me that the college should do its part on time, too,' ” Sasse recalled with a chuckle.
Four-year guarantees are becoming more popular at smaller, private liberal arts colleges as they try to keep down tuition costs while maintaining academic excellence, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. A handful of mostly East and West Coast schools have embraced the idea.
While some schools offer plans for students to graduate in four years, most don't offer to foot the bill if students don't graduate on time.
Doane College in Crete, Neb., has a four-year guarantee program. If students follow the guidelines and still don't finish in four years, the school offers to cover the cost of two additional semesters.
Midland's four-year graduation guarantee, which started with this year's freshman class, works like this:
» First-year students begin by taking a Midland 101 class that encourages them to, among other things, think about their majors and the kind of courses they'll need to graduate in four years.
» They are required to declare a major by the beginning of their sophomore year, take the required classes, maintain a full class load and stay in good academic standing.
» In turn, the school promises that students will get into their required classes and that it will provide stronger academic counseling.
While the program is aimed at freshmen, transfer students also are guaranteed to graduate within four years after they start at Midland if they comply with the program's requirements.
“Traditional advising waits for students to swim through the bureaucracy or get into trouble before anyone reaches out,” Sasse said. “At Midland, our professors and advisers go grab them and hug them.”
Omahan Tom Walker said his son, Mitch, a freshman, had met with his adviser more in the first few weeks of school than his older son had in four years at a public university. The four-year guarantee appealed to Walker, who is footing most of his sons' education costs.
It took his older son nearly five years to graduate. At Midland, “people keep track of you, and I think that's important,” he said.
Midland's effort is one piece of an aggressive recruiting campaign Sasse began when he was named president three years ago.
Sasse's overarching goal is to recruit more students from Omaha.
Nearly 40 percent of this year's new students are from the Omaha area, up 3 percent from last year and up 11 percent from 2010.
“In metro Omaha, we view ourselves as the small liberal arts college of metro Omaha,” he said. “Our population has re-centered from ag communities to Omaha.”
In 2006, then-President Steven Titus announced a budget cut of $1.1 million — nearly 10 percent — that eliminated several programs, resulted in faculty layoffs and sparked student outrage.
When Sasse arrived, he laid off 15 staff members, shrank some academic departments and consolidated others. Midland wouldn't have been able to meet its payroll without the cost-cutting moves, he said.
The school benefited from students who transferred to Midland when Dana College in Blair closed in 2010. Midland also has received a number of large gifts, including from former Dana donors, Sasse said.
With Midland back on track, it was time to beef up recruitment, he said.
Freshman Mollie Shevlin of Columbus knew she wanted to attend a small college. She and her parents, Kurt and Kim Shevlin, looked at several public schools, including Wayne State, Peru State and Chadron State, before deciding on Midland.
Even though private school tuition was higher, Kurt Shevlin said, the family determined it would cost about the same if Mollie had attended a public school and graduated in five years instead of four.
“When you think about it, when she'll be out in four years instead of five, it seems comparable,” he said. “Now we can't get her home. She's having a great time.”
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