July 16, 2020, Dr. Paula Shorter, Associate Provost for Enrollment Services at Rockhurst University, joined Vemo Education for a live webinar. Dr. Shorter shared details about Rockhurst’s evolving enrollment strategy and the ISA program to be launched this fall. Dr. Shorter’s oral discussion has been adapted for Vemo Insights.
Rockhurst University: Background & Enrollment Strategy
Rockhurst is a Jesuit Catholic, primarily liberal arts university in Kansas City, Missouri. We have about 3,000 students, and we are consistently ranked among the top regional universities in the Midwest. We’re currently ranked fourth among Missouri colleges and universities for return on investment, and we’re in the top 17 percent nationwide.
As we strive to improve our first-to-second year retention rate from the mid-eighties to 90 percent, and our four-year graduation rate from the upper sixties to above 70 percent, we have to balance the sometimes-competing financial needs of our students and institution. By filling a significant portion of our students’ need gaps with the strategic distribution of institutional aid, we are trying to remove financial barriers to students’ access and success. We do this through initial need-based financial aid packaging—that’s our financial aid matrix—through financial aid appeals for new students, and through retention appeals for continuing students who are struggling financially. At the same time, we have to support sustainable financial goals for the university.
Among those goals: increasing total net tuition revenue, and room and board revenue. Our planning and budgeting steering committee—the provost; the CFO; myself, as enrollment management; and the controller—work together to add to, develop, and implement financial strategies that will help us meet those goals. Over the years, that’s necessarily involved data-informed discussions to convince the cabinet and the board our enrollment strategy is viable.
Our former strategy was working, but narrowly for the university, financially, and slowly for student access, retention, and completion. When we heard about ISAs, we looked into them and found they could be the financial aid tool we were missing.
The Hawks Promise Program
The ISA program we’re piloting, the Hawks Promise Program, focuses on Rockhurst undergraduate programs: all majors, all class years. The program focuses rather broadly on enrollment, retention, and completion goals.
How does it help us reach those goals? An ISA enables a student to enroll or continue with their education—which, of course, costs more than the ISA funding amount, especially when they enroll over four years’ time. That gain is not only the remaining net tuition revenue, but it’s also revenue that will come back to the university in the future, as the student joins the workforce and begins to make payments.
For our program, we estimated the average need across our full-time undergraduate student body to be about $8,000, and our funding range for a single ISA in this pilot program is between $2,500 and $7,500. On average, we expect that the ISA amount will be about $4,000 per year. For students who take an ISA repeatedly over four years, that would amount to $16,000.
We chose a payment cap of 1x. That means the maximum a student will pay after leaving Rockhurst equals the total amount of their ISA funding. We chose that 1x cap so that ISA payments wouldn’t overly burden students after they leave Rockhurst. We considered our students’ growing total indebtedness and their aversion to loans.
We thought long and hard about the minimum income threshold as well. We chose $30,000, having recently added salary criteria to our own university compensation plans. We didn’t want to further strain participants earning below $30,000/year with ISA payments. We love that ISA payments are tied directly to participants’ income after they leave Rockhurst. The minimum income threshold protects participants during hard times—something we’re all doing now for current students and certainly want to maintain as students leave the university.
Most importantly, ISAs perfectly align with our mission. They back up our commitment to our students and our promise to them that they will engage in a transformational education during their time with us, and they will find fulfilling employment after graduating from Rockhurst. That’s partly why we named our program the Hawks Promise Program.
In the future, we plan to assess our program success metrics. We of course want to see if yield, diversity, retention, and completion metrics improve.
We’ll also be looking to expand the program, perhaps to graduate students and some of our new St. Luke’s health science students, like those enrolled in the BSN program.
As the Hawks Promise Program matures and students enter payment, we’d like it to become self-funded and self-sustaining, so that it could fund ISAs for future students.