A ‘secret sauce’ to increasing enrollment

Photo: McHenry Community College

Every organization wants to believe they have a special organizational culture, a “secret sauce” that gives rise to special outcomes. Leaders want to believe that a mission statement, a set of core values or goals, permeates their organization and translates into concrete behaviors that generate verifiable and desirable outcomes.

But, if every company or organization is adopting the same themes and values, how do you ever know what is working or what is truly “special?”

This spring, every community college faced an unprecedented, unparalleled challenge: get your students, faculty and staff off-campus immediately; find a way to keep instruction and learning going without any face-to-face contact between professors and students; plan for a fall semester where prospective and returning students could be reassured and encouraged; and create an environment that feels safe enough for employees to work successfully — all amidst the dark backdrop of a pandemic.

McHenry County College (MCC) in Illinois was no exception in our planning and efforts. We joined our sister colleges in formulating various instructional options. We spent money on recruiting and communicating our value propositions. We focused on a plan to keep everyone safe, hoping to offer some peace of mind in a time filled with anxiety and fear.

And yet, by the time the semester started a few weeks ago, MCC realized a very exceptional, extraordinary outcome. We became one of only a few institutions among the 48 community colleges in Illinois to see an enrollment increase. Our headcount grew to include 7,813 students — up 4.5% from fall 2019 — and our credit hours rose 2.1% during the same time period. This places our institution in the rarified air of being the only community college in Illinois to have experienced four straight years of enrollment growth, steadily increasing our headcount by 19.1% and credit hours by 6.28% since 2016.

So, maybe it is time to speculate as to whether there is an MCC difference, whether some of what we are working so hard to do is resonating in a truly unique way in our community. Maybe the collective ingredients contributed by every single employee, department and office have indeed created a “secret sauce” worthy of a second look. If so, what are the themes worth celebrating?

  • Making student-centered decision-making the norm, not the exception. We took an active approach in connecting with students and created absolute flexibility in scheduling up to the last minute before the semester began. People from departments across the college picked up phones and called students who may have been enrolled in the spring but hadn’t yet committed for the fall, answering questions and providing guidance. If our students said they needed more time to get their finances in order, we held their spot in their classes and gave them time.

    In addition to offering five flexible modes of on-campus or online learning, we added a selection of 12-week and even eight-week classes for students who may have been delaying their decision. We embedded student navigators into classes to help students adjust to college courses, connecting them to campus resources, and providing support with online learning technology. As was mentioned in a recent staff meeting, many of these innovations were admittedly harder on employees — but served our collective goal of making it easier for students.
  • Eliminating red tape that tangled up our students. Once the classrooms went virtual, so did our support services, including advising, financial aid, admissions and tutoring. Through reevaluating some of our processes in this way, we discovered cracks in the path where students might fall through. We started asking things like, “Why does this step require a special trip to campus?” or “Why do you have to go through multiple departments to get this task approved?” We were willing to forgo the comfort of saying, “This is the way we’ve always done it” to navigate uncharted waters and experiment with new ways to help our students.
  • Fostering true collaboration between the classroom and everything else. Our deans worked closely with advisors, adding class sections on the fly to meet students’ needs. We assigned advisors to specific departments to speed up processes and approvals. Our high school programs coordinator worked throughout the district to form greater partnerships and develop more dual-credit opportunities. Overall, we demonstrated a deep respect for one another and relied on our colleagues’ professional knowledge and expertise.

Growing up in a culture where the phrase “pride goeth before a fall” was deemed as self-evident as “a penny saved is a penny earned,” there is great hesitancy in claiming to be the best at anything. And we recognize the countless best practices exemplified daily by the 48 community colleges across our state (and the nearly 1,500 community colleges across the country). That said, we are confident that the future of higher education will be informed by paying attention to what works, bending nimbly to present circumstances where students can be inspired and prepared, and holding fast to the notion that we should be willing to let go of anything that creates unnecessary roadblocks for our students.

Related article: Strategies colleges used to increase enrollment this fall

About the Author

Clint Gabbard
is president of McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Illinois.