Q: How is Albertus Magnus College handling COVID-19?
A: For the fall, the start of the college’s 95th anniversary, we’ve welcomed our students back to campus. We’re in Connecticut and comparatively speaking, Connecticut is in pretty good shape as a state. Most institutions in the state are conducting classes in some combination of face-to-face and hybrid modalities. The majority of our 1,500+ students come from Connecticut. At the traditional-aged undergraduate level, we have roughly 550 students and those classes will be hybrid — including face-to-face, but in order to de-densify classroom sizes for social distancing, if a class is Monday and Wednesday, half of the students will be in the classroom on Monday and the other half will participate virtually, and then it will flip on Wednesday.
In addition, we have approximately 1,000 adult learners at undergraduate and graduate levels and the vast majority of those courses are online. The Good Lord willing and knock on wood, this semester will go smoothly, and our plan, like many colleges across the country, is to be done with our face-to-face learning right before Thanksgiving, and then our residential students will head home, finishing the last couple weeks online. At this point, our plan is to not have students return to campus until the spring semester begins, likely in January.
This fall’s class is going to be right around 200 students, so on the one hand, it’s 20 percent smaller than last year, however, it will still be the second-largest class in the college’s history.
What effect has COVID-19 had on enrollment?
Well, it’s had a negative impact for sure, and it’s brought what I believe will be a temporary pause to the enrollment growth we’ve been achieving. In the fall of 2019, we enrolled the largest incoming class in the college’s history. To put context on that for you, the year I arrived, fall of 2017, the incoming class size was about 120 and the incoming class last fall was 250. So in three years’ time, we doubled the size of the class. This fall’s class is going to be right around 200 students, so on the one hand, it’s 20 percent smaller than last year, however, it will still be the second-largest class in the college’s history. We originally budgeted to replicate the fall 2019 class size, and we were on pace in January/February to set an all-time record for applications, which we did. Things were trending exactly the way we wanted them to going into March, and then the pandemic hit, requiring us to adjust our original projections and forecasts. Considering all the challenges associated with the pandemic, to actually enroll 200 new students is a testament to our enrollment management teams and faculty and staff across the campus, and frankly I think it continues to affirm the relevancy, appeal, and value of an Albertus Magnus College, Catholic, and Dominican education. Indeed, the pandemic is seriously impacting our budget and ability to meet expenses, while fulfilling our education mission. But at the same time, as a community and institution, we have not been as negatively impacted as might be the case elsewhere.
What advice would you give to colleges that have been hit really hard by this?
Obviously that’s going to be contextualized for each individual institution, and it has to begin with prioritizing the safety, health, and well-being of students, faculty, and staff. But I think for those of us that are tuition-dependent — and frankly that’s most colleges in this country, especially the Catholic schools with very few exceptions — the advice is you have to do what you can to try to maximize enrollments and still communicate value. I think that’s what we tried to do here. We did arguably a very good job last spring of shifting on a dime to online learning, but because in our adult space, we do so much of that to begin with, the change for us was maybe a little less traumatic than it was for other colleges that teach primarily in-person classes. We did that last spring and so all summer long, our planning has been around how do we deliver on an Albertus Magnus College education in this changed, pandemic-impacted environment — how do we effectively infuse technology into our teaching? How do we take what were face-to-face courses and translate that into a hybrid model or a virtual model and still communicate value?
You’ve written about ethics and strategic enrollment management. From your perspective, what does ethical enrollment management mean and how do you implement it?
Ethical strategic enrollment management means that you keep the students, and their best interests, front and center in your strategy and in your planning and in your tactics. For example, if enrollment managers become entirely data-driven, a predictive model that prioritizes standardized test scores or net revenue might suggest not even considering admitting a particular student or group of students. While the science behind the model indicates a preferred outcome, if you bring the human element into the equation, which models obviously have trouble accounting for, maybe there’s something about a student where there’s grit and academic gifts that aren’t accounted for in the model, or perhaps they have other financial resources enabling them to pay.
I’m just trying to paint a picture of some of the challenging decisions that enrollment managers face. And by the way, I’m not sure that there’s a tougher job on the college campus than to be the chief enrollment officer, as they’re often tasked with meeting enrollment objectives that have competing priorities, such as, “We want to enroll more students from the lowest socioeconomic statuses, so that we make our education available to students regardless of need, but we don’t want to spend more in institutional financial aid.” Enrollment managers face scenarios like this all the time. In that example, an enrollment manager grounded in values or ethics is going to see the tensions inherent in those types of competing priorities and will make sure that leadership is aware: “Hey, if we can’t spend more on financial aid, we’re not going to be able to achieve that objective” or “If we’re not going to fund students at sufficient levels, they might not be able to afford four years with us.”
I’m not sure that there’s a tougher job on the college campus than to be the chief enrollment officer, as they’re often tasked with meeting enrollment objectives that have competing priorities...
Do you feel that the approach to enrollment at a Catholic institution is different from the approach at a secular one?
I do, or maybe I’ll suggest it probably should be. On the one hand, the art and science of going out and recruiting students, there will be commonalities in strategies that look very similar [at different types of institutions], but at a Catholic institution, there’s a Catholic identity and mission element at play that is likely not at play at a secular, nonsectarian institution. I’ve always argued and really believed that at the highest levels, mission informs everything that we do, it inspires it. Then, market has to be overlaid against mission — and if you want to build out that equation, then enrollment managers also need to focus on margin, meeting net revenue goals. But there’s no question in my mind that enrollment management at Albertus Magnus College is likely different than it is at the local state institution, if for no other reason than we have our Dominican mission and Catholic identity informing all we do.
How do you feel the years you spent in admissions have shaped the way you handle your presidency?
The first thing that comes to mind in the context of our enrollment management discussion is, I think I have a pretty good appreciation for the pressures faced by those who work in enrollment management here. I’ve lived in their world and I think — and I hope our vice president would concur on this— that’s a good thing. On one hand, I appreciate the pressures of the work that she and her teams undertake, and I certainly inform it from a strategy perspective at the highest levels. But I also realize I am not the vice president for enrollment management.
The other thing is, I started 31 years ago as an admissions counselor and I worked for a college that doesn’t exist today, Mount Ida College. At the time, it was a private college that had just gone from two-year to four-year and was basically open admission and so I, out of necessity during my four years there, really learned the importance of work ethic. I just say that because that shaped me from day one, and so I think that number one, I’m all in on this job. I don’t know any other way. I have very high expectations of all of our community members, but particularly those who report directly to me. You don’t do anything other than with your best effort, and if at the end of the day you can say that you gave it your best, even if it didn’t achieve the result you wanted, at least you can go to sleep and say, it’s not like I left something on the table.
There is no more important work than mission integration and deepening our engagement with our Dominican tradition and mission.
How has your presidency at Albertus Magnus College been a reflection of the four pillars of the Dominican tradition (study, prayer, community, and service)?
The four pillars speak to our Dominican mission and Catholic identity, and our mission dates to 1925, the year the college was founded by the Dominican Sisters. Everything we do here emanates from that mission. Our chief mission officer is a Dominican Sister who reports directly to me. There is no more important work than mission integration and deepening our engagement with our Dominican tradition and mission. During my tenure, we’ve been intentional in increasing the number of Sisters on campus, and we’ve brought back a chaplain, who is a Dominican Friar. We’re doing more programming around mission than we were doing, and from my first days as president, I’ve made it very clear that first and foremost, we are a Catholic, Dominican institution. That is a differentiator, it’s who we are, it’s why we’re different, and it’s not only valuable in the marketplace, it’s needed in the marketplace, because at our core, we are a values-based institution. Our Catholicity will resonate with our Catholic and Christian students. But our student body also includes Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu students, and I think part of why we are as diverse as we are, and part of why students are attracted to and feel comfortable at Albertus Magnus College, is because our mission calls us to embrace you for who you are, respect the dignity of you as an individual human being, and give you opportunities to explore and deepen your faith and spirituality. Fostering and championing the four pillars are a real priority for me.