Personal outreach to students helps maintain strong Sac State enrollment, despite troubling trends
March 21, 2023
Universities and colleges across the country are struggling with falling enrollment and retention, but Sacramento State this spring exceeded goals and kept scholars on track toward their degrees.
The University is bucking trends by working hard to clear barriers to student registration, said Steven Salcido, associate vice president for Enrollment Management and Student Services.
Sac State’s Student Service Center led efforts to contact thousands of students who risked missing registration deadlines, and worked with them to remove obstacles, Salcido said. In all, the campaign placed more than 13,000 phone calls.
Many students simply needed a reminder to complete paperwork. Others had more complicated issues, such as financial problems or housing concerns. In most cases, Sac State callers helped them resolve those issues by connecting students with appropriate campus resources.
The effort paid off. More than 70% of students contacted enrolled for the Spring 2023 semester.
Sac State’s spring headcount exceeded the CSU’s target by 1.4%, with 23,895 full time equivalent students enrolling. The average number of units students are taking jumped by about 1%.
"Students were going through a lot of things, and these calls gave them someone from Sac State who showed an interest in them, someone who said, ‘We believe in you. Let’s see what we can do to help you.’ In a lot of cases, a little nudge or a confidence boost was all that they needed." -- Student Service Center Director Jeff Weston
Campuses around the country continue to grapple with fallout from the pandemic, which sent students home to study in March 2020. The CSU experienced “unprecedented” enrollment declines in recent years, the Chancellor’s Office reports, and is projecting that the university system will fall 7% below its target of 383,680 students during the current academic year. Declining birth rates also have been cited as a reason for enrollment decreases.
In response to the trends, the CSU is urging its 23 campuses to implement programs to engage students. In the Fall 2023 semester, the CSU is launching a “dual admission” program called Transfer Success Pathway. The initiative is meant to boost enrollment by reserving spots at its campuses for community college students while granting them access to services such as counseling and libraries.
Campuses that continue to experience declining enrollment face significant funding cuts, money the CSU will re-allocate to campuses meeting enrollment goals.
Sac State has found that sometimes a simple telephone call can change a student’s trajectory.
The University’s targeted call campaign began in 2020, after pandemic concerns cleared the campus. During the lockdown, officials noticed that many students were missing deadlines for class registration and launched efforts to reach out to them. Now, the University does so in earnest prior to each semester.
“During COVID, a lot of the normal communication modes disappeared, and the human element was getting lost,” said Jeff Weston, director of the Student Service Center. “Students were going through a lot of things, and these calls gave them someone from Sac State who showed an interest in them, someone who said, ‘We believe in you. Let’s see what we can do to help you.’
“In a lot of cases, a little nudge or a confidence boost was all that they needed.”
Other situations were more complicated. Callers, who included everyone from Vice President of Student Affairs Ed Mills to student assistants, talked with students who were experiencing homelessness, or who had lost relatives to the pandemic.
“In those cases, the goal was less about getting students enrolled immediately than in getting them help,” Salcido said. “We can’t solve every problem, but we can connect them to resources,” including the CRISIS Assistances and Resource Education Support (CARES) office. Once their situation stabilizes, the University will follow up with those students to encourage them to enroll.
Administrators hope the call campaigns will motivate students to complete the application process as early as possible to avoid last-minute issues that can cause anxiety and interrupt their pursuit of degrees.
BreAnna Margadonna, an advisor in the Student Service Center, said she spoke before the current semester with many students who needed financial support but were unaware of how to obtain grants, scholarships, or other aid, helping them navigate the process.
“So many students told me, ‘I didn’t know where to go. I’m so happy that you called,’ ” Margadonna said. “They were not getting a generic email. It was a real person on the line. I got a lot of good, positive feedback.”
Overall, the call campaigns have been “extremely satisfying” for students and the staffers and administrators who spoke with them, Salcido said.
“It reminds you why you are in education,” he said. “We are motivating students, and helping them stay on track toward graduation.”
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