How to Turn Declining Enrollments Around: The Example of Communication

by Ann Abbott

It's well known that enrollments in higher ed programs in the humanities are decreasing. A lot. It has hit languages hard. Spanish, too. It seems we're all scrambling with no clear strategy that we can have complete confidence in. First of all, we don't really know from the students themselves why they are choosing to stay away from our programs. How can we fix a problem we don't understand?

Still, the Head of my department and I went in search of some potential solutions. We knew that the Department of Communication at our university had successfully reversed a very big dip in enrollments some years ago. We talked to them about how they did it.

Remember, there are no magic bullets. We probably need a combination of strategies, and we might even have to change some things about the very nature of our programs. (Ugh, it's so hard for people to change.) But here are the strategies that we walked away with.

Consider your name 

They changed the name of their department from "Speech Communications" to "Communication." This reflected more accurately what they actually do, they told us. I also suspect that many students see the word "speech" and their knees knock in fear. Taking the scary part out probably helped. The process took three years.

Redo the curriculum

They discarded old categories that no longer reflected the discipline and made the major/minor more flexible. They eliminated supporting coursework, so students now take 37 hours in communication. Of course, they had to make an argument for why this is important: to themselves, to students and to the administration. In other words, redoing the curriculum still requires us to offer a logical, sound program. As you can see from their program of study, they offer six areas of specialization, and they articulated in their brochures: "This is what this specialization does for you." 

One point to consider: rhey have an "intro" to the major, similar to LAS 101.

Aggressive marketing

Back when students read the campus newspaper, they ran full-page ads in the Daily Illini. They work closely with the Division of General Studies (DGS), and many of their students move from that program into theirs. They buy lunch for the DGS advisors and tell them about their communication major and careers. That helps the DGS advisors help the students make informed decisions about Communication. They told us that DGS sends a newsletter to students and one to parents. They suggested we try to be the "major of the week" for one of those newsletters to gain more visibility.

They hold a meet the department event (and faculty attend!). Furthermore, their student interns do the kind of work it takes to make the current majors feel good.

Became more focused on career outcomes

You can definitely see the emphasis on careers and successful alumni on their website. They always had an internship program, and they are pushing it even more. Additionally, they brought back a popular skills course that TAs teach: Business Comm 211. And finally, as we were running out of time with so much more to discuss still, they mentioned the importance of course titles. Course names matter: students need to clearly know what it means, but it should also be a bit "glamorous." (And for students today, the "glamour" often comes from being associated with careers.)

That's a quick summary of our discussion. It's not philosophical. It's not pinpointing the underlying problems. But it is a helpful list of ideas from a department that turned itself around. Are you doing any of these things in your department? Have different strategies been successful for you? It would be wonderful if we could share our ideas and outcomes (successful and not successful) so that we can all understand students' perspectives and concerns better and come up with better solutions. 


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