Illumination by Modern Campus

Sarah Gaffney (Onondaga Community College) on Harnessing Innovation and Adaptation to Drive Enrollments in Higher Ed

June 04, 2024 Modern Campus
Sarah Gaffney (Onondaga Community College) on Harnessing Innovation and Adaptation to Drive Enrollments in Higher Ed
Illumination by Modern Campus
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Illumination by Modern Campus
Sarah Gaffney (Onondaga Community College) on Harnessing Innovation and Adaptation to Drive Enrollments in Higher Ed
Jun 04, 2024
Modern Campus

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Sarah Gaffney to discuss the changing enrollment trends in the community college space and how innovation plays a key role in institutional and student success. 

Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, podcast host Shauna Cox was joined by Sarah Gaffney to discuss the changing enrollment trends in the community college space and how innovation plays a key role in institutional and student success. 

Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Sarah Gaffney, who is Vice President of Enrollment Management at Onondaga Community College. Sarah and podcast host Shauna Cox, discuss the changing enrollment trends in the community college space and how innovation plays a key role in institutional and student success. 

Shauna Cox (00:02):Sarah, welcome to the Illumination podcast. I'm so glad you could join me today.

Sarah Gaffney (00:07):Thank you. I'm happy to be here.

Shauna Cox (00:09):Absolutely. So we're here to talk about the importance of innovation and creativity when it comes to enrollment. Now, enrollment is always a rollercoaster ride in higher education, I would say, and especially with the pandemic for some institutions it kind of threw everyone up, threw everyone down. Everybody's kind of dealing with that. But I think you guys have kind of come out of that a bit and that's what we're going to be talking about today. But to kind kick off our conversation, how have you personally seen enrollment trends within the community college landscape change within the recent years?

Sarah Gaffney (00:48):Sure. It's always a good question. I mean, community college enrollment has typically somewhat follow the same pattern as unemployment, which makes sense because those that need to reskill or upskill to gain employment will come back during down periods. And the pandemic really added an interesting layer to that enrollment trajectory that in addition to, we are based, I'm on a diet community college and that's in Syracuse, New York and New York state, outside of the city area has seen a drop in demographic. We see a lot of people leaving, moving, going to different states. And so we are constantly in the enrollment world watching high school, graduating classes of those traditional students and trying to find ways to engage other populations outside of the traditional student age because those demographics are just continuing to shrink for us here. So it has been an interesting rollercoaster as you put it, to watch enrollment and what the pandemic has done for that.

(01:59):Most institutions did see a decrease. It was really hard to be a student during the pandemic, very hard. And so we have seen what I call the covid rebound a little bit, come back. Those students who opted to sit out have made choices. I think there's still a number of them that are sitting on the sideline waiting to see the value of higher ed, honestly. And as a community college, I think we do benefit from that conversation, what is the value of higher education? And because our costs are so reasonable in the market, that is something that we talk about frequently.

Shauna Cox (02:37):Absolutely. And then talking about some of the challenges because it's changing demographics, people are leaving, it's maybe not who you were serving before. And then at the same time, we have course have the workforce side of things, but the skills gap and all that. So what are some of the challenges to addressing both that learner and industry need while maintaining your enrollments?

Sarah Gaffney (03:01):So I'm lucky to work at an institution who has been very innovative, especially when it comes to program development and program review throughout the pandemic period. We were not an institution that's that treading water, just trying to survive. We actually took a unique approach and we're pretty strong in terms of using that timeframe to make changes to our programmatic mix. And our faculty did a fantastic job of reviewing our program in the context of what employers are looking for and where certain industries are moving and where industries specific to our area are moving. The semiconductor industry is a big one currently in conversation in our area. And so the faculty did a really good job, like I said, looking at programs, reviewing programs, making tweaks to program, and adding new programs. We have added over 20 new programs, whether they are micro-credentials, certificate, full associate degree programs, workforce credentials since we came through the pandemic. And I think that has helped us. The innovation in curriculum and program aspects has really helped us move forward.

Shauna Cox (04:22):Absolutely. And it's really paid off for Onondaga Community College. You guys have seen a recent increase in your enrollments, which is always amazing to see in here. Clearly a part of that is to the work that you've done in the pandemic. So I kind of want to deep dive into that a little bit more and talk about how has the college adapted to drive that success in their enrollment numbers from that pandemic time that you've already mentioned and kind of into today. And how are you guys continuing to do that?

Sarah Gaffney (04:50):Sure. So we had to change the trajectory in order to survive, which is just a reality in the higher ed industry these days. And so we did a few different things. One, I already spoke over the innovation of programs and that's great. Now we have a product or more products that we're able to go out into the market with. We also made some changes to the way we were handling recruitment. No longer, I think can institution, I refer to it as casting a wide net. No longer can you use one blanket statement to draw in students into an institution. It has to be individualized. We need to be talking to people so that they feel like we're talking to them and their situation. We can't just test the wide net and think that students are just going to come to us. So we have done that.

(05:46):We've been very strategic in terms of creating different market segments and even in dealing with our K 12 partners being very strategic with their populations need. We have the Syracuse City School district within our market, and their needs are very different from a more rural district and what those students are looking for. So we really have done some thinking about how our recruiters go out and with what they go out to different districts. And I continue asking the question to districts, what is it we can do for you? Let's stop looking at it as what everyone can do. For us, we're now in an environment where we really need to think about what we can do for our community and for the individuals that we serve. And that is, I think, part of what has helped us move things along. I think in the future, and currently we're trying to position ourselves for that, some flexibility and scheduling.

(06:53):That's a big area that we need to work on so that we can draw in some more of the adults or over 19 market that either needs to finish something. I mean, there are thousands of individuals in our community alone, and we have the data on them that have started with us or had an experience with us but didn't finish and haven't gone anywhere else. So that's a market that we are looking at and actively trying to engage. But those are individuals who have responsibility, who are in the workforce. And in order to get a higher ed credential, it takes time. So we just need to be thoughtful about how we are approaching and what we are doing to make sure that those individuals can access that. Our full mission as a community college is access. And so those are things that we're continuing to work on. But it has been interesting. It's always interesting to go from a period of contraction back to a period of growth. And it has taken some time for folks even on campus to get a little bit more into somewhat of a growth mindset. We're trying to be very conservative about that because over promise or overdue with the financial situation we're in. But it's been interesting to watch and to be able to maneuver through it. And I think here have done a good job of that, which I'm proud of.

Shauna Cox (08:23):Well, and I think that adaptability mindset and to have that growth is so key in driving success, thriving and evolving with the changing demographics and the changing needs that are within the landscape right now. And along with that mindset is that idea of innovation and creativity. So looking at a more bigger picture, how can higher ed leaders leverage innovation and creativity to help drive their enrollments if they're struggling?

Sarah Gaffney (08:57):Yeah, I think we're in a time where higher education leaders need to take some risks in terms of things differently. They need to be calculated risks, like I mentioned earlier, with finances the way that they are. But just because we've done something a certain way is no longer the reason to do that. I mean, as an industry, we're being challenged right now to prove our work. Often say we need to answer the elephant in the room questions, and it doesn't matter what age or market segment we're talking about, they want to know how much, how long, and what does it get me in a definitive way, not just, oh, it'll open up your futures to brighter things. No, no, what job and how much and where. So we need to answer those questions and we need to think in a way and be creative about how we can get at those individuals and answer those questions. So calculated risk is a big thing, and it's scary to step outside the comfort zone and to do things differently. But in the world that we are currently in, where we see institutions announcing closures, doing things different is just the way we're going to have to do it and not do them different, just to do them differently, but make sure that we are being strategic and making changes that will benefit those that we serve.

Shauna Cox (10:27):Absolutely. And I want to dovetail off of that and talk about those benefits. So what impact does this level of innovation and calculated risks that people should be taking, how does that impact the student experience,

Sarah Gaffney (10:43):Hopefully in a good way. Absolutely. Most of the risks that we have taken here at OCC have been, like I said, with recruitment, changing our mindset when it comes to recruitment and marketing and trying to draw in students, but also once we get them, we need to retain them and have them persist. And community colleges have struggled historically with keeping students engaged, not because the student doesn't want to be engaged or because they can't succeed, but because of what they're dealing with in their life outside of school. So most of our students are not those that have committed to a straight path to a four year degree or a master's degree and have the support systems in place to help them just plow through full-time all the way through whatever their goal might be. Our students are coming from situations where they're caring for family members, they're caring for siblings.

(11:43):They have to work 1, 2, 3 jobs to make ends meet. And so the innovative things that we have been doing have been trying to address that. So on campus, we have what we call a community care hub. There are funding options available. They also link with social service agencies in the area to try and have students be able to access those from here and not have to go to five different places. We also have a food pantry, a clothing closet, things that can help keep students on track. In addition to that, we have set up a support structure with navigators. We've broken up our academic programs into four, what we refer to as schools within the college. And those each have significant support systems that have been put into place that we have put resources behind because we believe that that will help students retain and persist towards their goals. So that's a fairly new structure for us. We actually set it up during the pandemic. We launched it about the month. It's not about the month that we ended up having to close for the pandemic. So we're trying to gather data to make sure that those innovative things that we have put in place are actually benefiting students. But we have seen movements throughout the periods that we now have data on, and we'll help us continue to monitor that.

Shauna Cox (13:14):That's amazing. That's great to hear. Yeah, and I want to touch back on the point that you were mentioning in the beginning when it comes to community colleges in general, they're often, community colleges are known for being the more attractive option for people. Oftentimes they're a lot more affordable and things like that. So how do you see the perception of community colleges evolving in the upcoming years?

Sarah Gaffney (13:38):Yeah, I think I'm hopeful that it will evolve in a more positive way. I've had many conversations with families and students about choices, especially in the midst of the changes with the FAFSA and what that has done in terms of students having information available to make choices about where they're going to go. And I've talked to a number of families that I think we probably would not have been on the list of options for them. And due to many circumstances we now are, and a lot of them, probably the majority of them have chosen us. Those students are now committed to us and are excited about coming here and making that choice. A lot of it had to do with mapping out the finances, which is it going to cost to go to these different institutions, and what is the outcome? So what kind of debt will I be in and how will that repayment affect my future and my financial situation?

(14:48):And I think students, both traditional and non, are seeing us as an option and the option at this point, given the environment that they're currently in. So we are trying to figure out how to get that message out in a better way. I was just talking to the marketing team about how we can say things that will resonate with people instead of just, we are a lower cost option. Well, that is the case, but it's not just that we're a lower cost option. Our outcome are also very, very good and sometimes better than other institutions in terms of job placement and average annual salary in different career paths. Some of our technology career paths go in at a starting salary of $70,000, and that's great, especially in our area with our cost of living. And so we're trying to get better. I think the community college market has not been great at owning its greatness and really standing up and yelling it about how great we are and what an awesome opportunity we provide for individuals, and we need to start doing that more. So that's the direction that we're trying to move in and are trying to communicate with families in about where we fall in the spectrum of choice, because there are so many, it's overwhelming for students, but I think we play a big role in that, and I'm excited to be able to express ourselves in a way that folks can see all of the benefits that's coming to OC and a community college in general.

Shauna Cox (16:47):Absolutely. I think there's oftentimes a stigma around community colleges and the outcomes that can come from it, but having this innovation and creative mindset to break away from that stigma, I think is really going to help students realize that OCC might be the fit for them. And I think that's really important to communicate. So it's great to see that you guys are honed in on that and the work that you guys are doing behind that. It's great. Those are all the questions that we have for you, but before I let you go, we're going to need a restaurant recommendation. Now you're based in Syracuse, New York, so anyone's in town, where do they need to go?

Sarah Gaffney (17:27):So I actually have two. One would be possibilities. Possibilities is an awesome Italian restaurant right downtown Syracuse. The environment is fantastic and the food is wonderful. And then we also have a dinosaur barbecue here in Syracuse, which does have other locations. I think in Washington there's one, but it started here and it's a really cool environment as well with completely different foods. So that's where I would tell folks to go, but you got to go early and make a reservation because they're very popular places.

Shauna Cox (18:04):I mean, that's good. That's a great recommendation then. Amazing. Thank you so much, Sarah, for joining me.

Sarah Gaffney (18:09):Thank you.