December 7, 2017

The admissions office has been a dynamic place at Wheaton during the past semester. Since the beginning of the school year, Wheaton has hired its first Chief Enrollment Management Officer, unrolled a new “Fridays at Wheaton” program for prospective students, built a Welcome Center for admissions offices and guests and begun accepting the Common Application for the class of 2022.

These changes coincide with the reconfiguration of merit scholarships, a tuition increase of 3.5 percent and modifications in the way Wheaton determines need-based aid. In light of these changes, the Record sought to investigate buzz on campus about falling enrollment and a dwindling applicant pool.It’s true that enrollment is down — slightly. Total undergraduate enrollment for fall of 2017 is at its lowest since before 2010, at 2391 students (compared to an average of 2450 over the past seven years). However, this information doesn’t tell the full story: According to Director of Student Financial Services Karen Belling, Interim Admissions Director Jason Kircher and Assistant Director of multicultural recruitment Raashon Daniels, Wheaton’s target enrollment is “around 2400 students” each year. Trends of decreased enrollment are, perhaps counterintuitively, the result of better economic times for the college.

“The lower current enrollment in part reflects a return to a post-recession normal level,”  the three told the Record in a joint email.  “During those years we temporarily grew enrollment because of financial concerns.”

Kircher, Belling and Daniels said that the number of undergraduate applications has remained “stagnant” in recent years. This is a trend which admissions seeks to change, a “key goal” being to increase the number of applicants. However, according to Kircher, application numbers are heavily influenced by factors outside Wheaton’s control.

“There are a number of trends affecting college enrollment across the country that Wheaton isn’t immune from,” Kircher said, citing a study by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE). “Numbers of high school graduates are decreasing in the Northeast and Midwest and will continue to do so through 2025.”

These regional trends reflect larger patterns nationwide; after a steady climb from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, high school graduation rates began to level out in 2013. Both WICHE and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) predict that the number of graduates will increase slightly by 2025  due to increases in Hispanic, Black, Asian, American Indian and other non-White graduates. However, in large part this “slowdown” of graduates will continue, meaning that Wheaton and other colleges nationwide will have to compete even more fiercely for prospective students.

Though an uptick in recent data muddles some projections, the number of graduates from private high schools is expected to decrease by 10 percent by 2025, according to the NCES. This trend is particularly noteworthy for Wheaton, which draws a large number of its students from private schools.

A more encouraging trend is Wheaton’s yield rate, or the percentage of accepted students who choose to enroll at the school. At 40 percent, Wheaton’s yield is far higher than the average among national liberal arts colleges of 27.5 percent (as of fall 2015). This 40 percent yield has remained fairly consistent over recent years, as has Wheaton’s retention rate — the percentage of students who return to Wheaton from one year to the following year. This number has hovered between 93 and 95 percent, according to the College’s data from the class of 2000 through the class of 2019. This number is also high compared to national averages.

Kircher attributes Wheaton’s yield and retention of students to the identity and appeal of the school.

“Students who do apply to Wheaton have a strong affinity for the school, meaning our brand and value is strong among students who know about and apply to Wheaton College,” Kircher said. “[Retention rates show that] almost all of the students who choose to enroll at Wheaton find that it’s a fit both academically and financially, and that students find a community and strong student support at Wheaton.”

Wheaton’s applicant pool is another unique aspect of its admissions process. Despite its popular reputation as “the Harvard of Christian Schools,” Wheaton’s acceptance rate for the fall of 2016 was 79 percent — comparable to other small Christian colleges such as Taylor University (80 percent), Hope College (84 percent), Calvin College (75 percent), Westmont College (83 percent) and nearly 15 percent higher than Biola University (65 percent). In contrast, Harvard University boasted an acceptance rate of 5 percent, according to the same 2016 data from NCES. Based strictly on acceptance rates, Wheaton is the second least-selective school in the CCIW, behind only North Park University. However, the standardized test scores of students who chose to enroll at Wheaton in the fall of 2016 were, on average, higher than every other school mentioned above. This reflects a pool of applicants who as a whole are high academic achievers and who, as Kircher noted, already know quite a bit about Wheaton’s environment.

Although enrollment has been down, Wheaton’s acceptance rate has increased over the past couple years. Admissions declined to share with the Record its annual report detailing Wheaton’s acceptance rate over the past couple of years. According to the Princeton Review, Wheaton’s acceptance rate in 2016 was 79 percent of 1,850 applicants and in 2015 it was 70 percent of 1,941 applicants.

A key aspect of Wheaton’s recruitment strategy is reaching out to international and multicultural students. Belling, Kircher and Daniels reported a 12 percent increase — from 15 to 27 percent — in the diversity of the student body over the past seven years.

“Wheaton is intentional in our marketing to ensure that we communicate our value of ethnic diversity in our materials,” Belling said. “In our hospitality we are committed to having a truly welcoming campus environment for people of all backgrounds.”

In order to manage this wide-sweeping recruitment strategy, the college has hired a Chief Enrollment Management Officer — Silvio Vazquez — to coordinate “enrollment-related departments,” as well as both attract and retain undergraduate students. Vazquez is himself a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina and a first-generation college student.

“As a campus that recruits nationally and internationally, our recruitment strategy is national and international in scope,” Belling said. “Silvio Vazquez will come to Wheaton in January with experience and expertise in recruitment strategy, and we are excited for the leadership he will bring to this area.”

Belling, Kircher and Daniels specifically highlighted the Common App, the six all-day visit opportunities through Fridays at Wheaton, the Welcome Center and investment in the Center for Vocation and Career as part of a larger ambition to “enhance our efforts in attracting students to Wheaton.”