President Ray Opens the New Academic Year

August 19, 2014 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications

On August 18, 2014, Elmhurst College President S. Alan Ray shared his thoughts on the state of the College with faculty and staff during the opening breakfast for the 2014-15 academic year.

Good morning, everyone, and welcome to the start of a new academic year.

I use the term “academic year” quite intentionally, since after last year it might be easy to think of our annual beginning as simply or primarily the start of a new fiscal year. Discussion of finances dominated 2013-14. And rightly so. But having done our financial planning, it’s time to move on to focus on the programs and initiatives that will be informed and disciplined by that planning. Already last spring we brought forth a new, second strategic plan for the College’s future, one that prioritized financial stability, to be sure, but went further, to articulate a clear vision of the College’s future and to call for a number of exciting strategies—18, to be precise—that will drive the College to a new and, I believe, unprecedented level of quality.

Planning and Investing for the Long Game
I am sure you would agree that last year was a very challenging one for us. To embrace the opportunities for the upcoming year and move on, it is important first to acknowledge that our financial reality was stressful. Everyone who cares about the College and his or her place in it was understandably worried that curing a large deficit would mean doing without something in some significant way. But we rallied to the cause. We should never forget that faculty, staff and students came together as a community in 2013-14 to stimulate a culture of innovation, to facilitate student transfer to the College, to create the foundation for our first large and sustained approach to international students, and to help put our financial house in order. When all was said and done, and the governance bodies had acted, we had done some amazing work and generated initiatives the likes of which I dare say this College has never seen.

Consider: We are on the verge of implementing strategies aimed at increasing transfer students, increasing international students, retaining students in greater numbers, courting veterans, making ELSA even more attractive by offering residential living, adding many new master’s programs and certificate programs, especially in the health sciences, and significantly enhancing traditional student recruitment by more strategic marketing in the greater Chicago region.

We created a Staff Council which for the first time gives the most numerous segment of our campus a formal voice in College affairs. I am proud that Staff Council now has representatives on the Advisory Council for Strategic Planning, thus making the ACSP a truly representative body. All these initiatives and more came out of hard work by our faculty, staff, students and Board members.

And as if that were not enough, all of these amazing initiatives came to life in the specific imperatives or implications of two key, campus-created documents that will guide our future, namely, the Elmhurst College Financial Plan and the Elmhurst College Strategic Plan for 2020.

There are a couple of lessons here. First, even under stress we can be highly creative and cooperative, and whether in vision mode or problem-solving mode, we can generate wonderful things for an institution, things we can take pride in, which can bring about a future of our own choosing. We are not victims of financial circumstance or mere functions of an external environment and internal habit and routine. Rather, we are active agents of our campus climate and our financial and programmatic future. That insight alone can be personally and collectively liberating and offers a basis for optimism for the year ahead.

A second lesson learned is that we must not become captured by transient ups and downs in enrollments and markets or the force of personalities, but instead plan for the long game, and make the mission-centered investments and changes to our usual operating methods that will drive us forward far into the future. And that is what we have done. We can all be proud of the work we did last year to set our financial house in order, so that by FY17, two fiscal years from now, we will move into positive financial territory and stay there. Our long-term enrollment and financial picture, post-2013, is in fact quite positive. Elmhurst College remains, as it has for many years, a destination of choice for a great many young people and adult learners. If we keep close to our financial and strategic plans, there is every reason to believe our future will continue the trajectory of successes that we have enjoyed over the past 20 years.

The trustees believe this, and had the confidence to approve a budget calling for increased across-the-board compensation this fiscal year. I am happy to confirm that all eligible employees of the College will receive an increase to base salary of 3 percent, effective January 1, 2015. Also in accord with the budget, employee benefits will not be reduced in fiscal 2015. Consider this the first fruits of our labors last year.

Improved Enrollments This Year
It is customary on this occasion to offer you a sketch of our entering class. This fall we anticipate enrolling 14 more first-year students than last year: 520 compared to 506 last year. Transfers look to rise from 271 in fall 2013 to 280 in 2014 (up 9). New students in our accelerated bachelor’s program will number an estimated 72, compared to 46 last year (up 26), and new graduate students are expected to come in at 224, compared to 172 in 2013 (up 52). And though due to a significantly smaller entering class last year, our returning student numbers overall will decline by around 68 from the preceding year, thanks to hard work by all of you, our retention rate of first-year students entering in fall 2013 is expected to be in the range of 82-85 percent–an impressive figure by any account and up from 78 percent last year. Putting these estimates together, our overall headcount in all programs is expected to rise from 3,210 to 3,239.

Though we continue to struggle to translate these numbers into aggregate positive net revenues, due to high tuition discounting, the trend in enrollments is upward in sheer numbers, and increasingly broad across undergraduate and graduate programs.

A record number of entering first-year students will be students of color. Recent estimates put the figure at 39 percent. African American and Asian American students each are pulling around 6 percent, while fully 23 percent of our entering class self-identifies as Hispanic. The mix of women and men will follow the trends of the past decade or so, with women’s numbers predominating at around 58 percent. As usual, 85 percent of our incoming students hail from Illinois, and one in five new first-years is a first-generation student. LGBT students are averaging 2.5 percent of the entering class.

Our first-year students continue to be academically strong, though very slightly down from recent years, with the average ACT score estimated at 23.49 and GPA at 3.36/4.0. Finally, top majors for fall 2014 follow the trends of recent years, with nursing and “open” major tied for first, followed (in this order) by biology, education, exercise science, psychology, business administration, communication sciences and disorders, and criminal justice rounding out the most popular areas of academic interest.

Strategic Marketing in Admissions
A key part of future success lies in taking a more strategic approach to traditional undergraduate admissions, looking for more students with preexisting affinity to Elmhurst College, here in the Chicagoland area, and focusing on prospective students whose family resources suggest that they will be able to pay a greater percentage of our tuition, thus lowering the discount rate and making more money for the College. Admissions will continue to do its job of recruiting students and vetting applications—no criteria for admission are changing—but the pools of potential students who meet those criteria will be defined with greater attention to likely Elmhurst affinity and financial resources.

This change will not be done overnight, and the metaphor of turning a large ship at sea is not inapt. But the Board and I have confidence that this is the right approach to raising substantially and sustainably greater net revenues for Elmhurst, as required by our strategic plan. And this is exactly the kind of planning for the long game, making the mission-centered investments and changes to our usual operating methods that will drive us into the future, that I advocated above. Our new admissions strategy is now in effect and should begin showing positive results as early as next fall.

Strategic Plan Implementation
But our work here is not ultimately about financial planning; it is about people and place and ensuring the quality of an Elmhurst education, and for that we begin with our touchstone, the Elmhurst College Strategic Plan.

To have traction, our strategic plan must be implemented, and it must be put to work in a way that hews to what we can afford in a given year. It cannot run ahead of our financial planning. It is that work of implementation that we will focus on as the year begins.

Some general directions to guide the implementation plan for 2014-15 are these:

We will focus on new academic program development. We will extend our current market reach for students. We will improve our per capita net revenue. And, we will examine opportunities to improve quality, increase efficiency and reduce costs. The general directions above all derive from the College’s financial plan approved by the Board in June.

Planning for this year’s implementation is under way. Earlier this month, the Advisory Council on Strategic Planning held a one-day retreat to identify institutional priorities. In addition, this summer the faculty met informally to discuss the implementation plan and came up with a very good set of clusters of strategies that include specific action items for faculty and departments. I want to thank the faculty for this work. The ACSP will include your ideas in our implementation planning in the coming weeks.

Here, then, are some of the directions we will be taking, based on the general directions of the financial plan, the inputs of ACSP members at the retreat, and the work of the faculty over the summer. This list is meant to be illustrative, not exhaustive, of the elements in an implementation plan. They are, however, what I believe will be our top priorities.

First, we need to take care of our people. The ACSP members ranked first out of 18 strategies the need to invest in our faculty and staff through competitive salaries, benefits and professional development opportunities. The Board-approved 3 percent increase to base salary is very welcome, but we need to chart a course to make compensation both predictable and competitive. For too long we have bumped along, raising one year, not raising the next, as our annual revenues allowed. The strategic plan implies a commitment to predictable increases that will make us a competitive employer in all respects. Let’s work toward that end and remember that our core value of social responsibility starts with doing justice to the men and women who make up our College’s employed community.

Second, we need to continue to grow the School for Professional Studies so as to maximize its revenue-generating potential. This means exploring new partnerships in the community as well as developing academic programs in the health sciences, such as starting a master’s program in occupational therapy. This strategy received the second largest number of votes in the ACSP, after providing competitive compensation, and I support it as well.

Third, we should focus on implementing the specific strategic initiatives that went through the task forces and were approved by the ACSP and Board last spring. Accordingly, I support a plan this year that would do the following:

Point one: Invest in international student recruitment and retention and global educational experiences for all students at the levels reviewed and approved by the Board. Leadership for implementing this strategy will be located in the Office of International Student Services. Working with that office, we will set tangible outcomes to be achieved by the end of the academic year.

Point two: Revitalize and enhance transfer student recruitment. Transfer students play a very important role in both the diversity of our student body and the generation of high net revenues. The Office of Admission will play a leadership role here.

Point three: Invest in recruitment of military veterans. Veterans increase our campus diversity. Helping veterans get an education serves our community. And, veterans sometimes bring additional federal dollars to their education. This strategy to serve veterans will be undertaken through the Center for Professional Excellence.

Point four: Place a limited number of qualified ELSA students in residence halls in an initiative aimed at improving the residential experiences of ELSA and non-ELSA students alike, and expanding the initiative if it proves to be an asset to the College. The ELSA Program and SPS in tandem with the Office of Student Affairs are in charge of overseeing this strategy.

The fourth element focuses on the health sciences. We will pursue the strategy calling for a coordinated, multidisciplinary approach to developing programs of study and research related to the growing role of the health sciences and professions in our society. As suggested by the faculty, we will use market research to identify candidate programs, and will inventory our existing academic programs to find interdisciplinary opportunities that could be developed. We will also pursue the strategy calling on us to build science facilities to meet our foreseeable teaching and research needs. Whatever else we do, we must renew our science infrastructure.

Already we have raised substantial monies in support of this project from individuals, the state of Illinois, and campus assets. More must and will be done this year to ready us for making new science facilities at Elmhurst a reality. Six years have passed since our first strategic plan called out this project, and in that time fully 10 other competitor schools have opened, broken ground for, or announced campaigns to support new science facilities.

To review: The first three specific elements of our 2014-15 implementation plan focus on, first, employee compensation and benefits; second, growing the SPS; and third, making the task force initiatives a reality. Within the latter comes a) internationalizing the campus, b) increasing transfer student enrollments, c) recruiting military veterans, and d) introducing ELSA students to the residence halls. The fourth element of the implementation plan focuses on developing academic programs and interdisciplinary initiatives in the health sciences and professions and making significant advances in planning for new and renovated science facilities.

Issues for the Future
The four elements and four sub-elements, above, will form the heart of this year’s implementation plan. Remember that all are accounted for in our financial plan and our investment in each of them is designed to strengthen our community and increase our net revenues. Their execution will take us into 2015 and well beyond. What other matters are on the horizon? Here are a few.

The strategic plan also calls on us to enhance the physical infrastructure that supports all aspects of student life on campus through careful, planned integration of existing and new facilities. The implementation plan for future years, then, must take account of our need for more than new science facilities. Our students’ Elmhurst Experience is holistic and includes the need for such things as improved recreational and athletic facilities.

Can we combine different infrastructure projects to serve student needs, enhance our attractiveness as a college of choice, and perhaps even save money? Can we use technology in intelligent ways to teach and to bring together in a virtual way classrooms located at very different physical locations, to allow us to offer programs off the footprint of the campus, perhaps in partnerships such as the one we have with Elmhurst Memorial Healthcare and the nursing program, or our contemplated OT program and rehabilitation clinics, or other hospitals? These are the questions, among many others, that will eventually find their focus in a discussion of a new campus master plan, and a comprehensive capital campaign.

I want to offer a word on institutional identity. The strategic plan calls on us to revise organizational and business practices to enhance service and lower costs. A major reorganization that has been raised as a possibility is becoming a university. A better, broader approach might be to ask, what is the optimal structure of Elmhurst College, given our strategic plan’s objectives? Before we can address that question head-on, though, careful research and planning must be done, and the Board must approve any plan for collectively discussing this important issue. In the coming months, I will work with the Board on how to do so. In the meantime, as you can see, we have many other pressing institutional plans to realize.

A Growing Reputation for Excellence
Given our financial challenges and the competitive environment of higher education, it is easy to doubt ourselves. Will we ever become the place we say we want to be? It’s so expensive. Why bother when there are so many other schools around us? At those times, let us remember that outside of Elmhurst there is a larger world of appraisal and opinion, and there, Elmhurst College enjoys a strong reputation for excellence.

At the end of July, Money magazine, in its list of “Best Colleges,” ranked us 166th in the nation. That places the College among the top 7 percent of the 2,472 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. By a wide margin, Elmhurst ranks the highest among the small private colleges and universities in Illinois. The College also outranks a number of larger competitors, including some of the biggest and best-known schools in the state.

A week ago, Forbes issued its list of best colleges for 2014, and Elmhurst again landed among the top schools in Illinois. Forbes said of its project, “We ignore the abstract (reputation) and wasteful (spending-per-student) to focus on one measurement: outcome. From student satisfaction and graduation rates, to career success and student debt, this ranking counts what matters.” Of the Illinois colleges and universities ranked, Elmhurst came in ahead of many of them.

Ratings rise and fall, of course, but taken together, along with U.S. News, they tell a story of Elmhurst’s academic excellence, value for the dollar, and strong student outcomes. We can and should be proud that Elmhurst is walking the walk in 2014, doing for our students what we say we will do, and never breaking with our tradition or our mission.

A prime example of Elmhurst showing academic leadership is our new Simulation Center built in partnership with Elmhurst Memorial Hospital. This state-of-the-art facility for health care education, located at EMH, is ready to open its doors to our nursing students. It is simply stunning, and its capabilities exceed expectations.

When I look at the year ahead, I see a year of financial and institutional growth and development, a burst of creativity resulting in a multitude of academic programs, all carefully grounded in fiscal reality but each dedicated to both augmenting our revenues and enhancing and advancing our mission. I’ll say it plainly—I believe we have turned a corner. We have reinterpreted ourselves for the next six years, set our sights on 2020, and begun the slow but sure process of stabilizing our financial house and laying the foundation for greater things to come. We have done this—not the administration and staff, not the faculty, not the Board, nor students, nor alumni. But all of us, combining our unique strengths for the good of all, or as the Cherokees say, ga-du-gi: All working together. Let’s keep going.

Thank you, have a great year, and I will see you around campus.

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