Considering the pandemic and other difficulties facing higher education in general these days, you might wonder what motivated Sarah Coen to return to Transylvania University at this particular moment to help recruit new students and keep the current ones.
Part of the reason is that Coen, the school’s new vice president for strategic initiatives and enrollment management, loves a challenge. Another part is she believes the university is well positioned to thrive in these trying times.
She’s downright optimistic, in fact: “I never would have left my other job and said, ‘Hey, I’m going to come back to campus in the middle of a pandemic,’ if I didn’t think there was an opportunity to do something meaningful and exciting.”
Coen, who earned a bachelor’s degree from Miami University and a master’s in public administration from Central Michigan University, served as Transylvania’s dean of admissions from 1999-2006. She went on to become a national expert on student success and enrollment, working with more than 150 institutions across the U.S. in her former roles at the educational consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz.
Recently returning to Transylvania, she’s now focused on the overall enrollment strategy, as opposed to daily admissions operations like before. Coen also will be improving student and alumni experience by working closely with offices across campus — from diversity and inclusion to academics to advancement. “We’re trying to be collaborative in everything we’re doing,” she said.
Coen, along with President Brien Lewis and other administrators, is developing a multiyear strategic enrollment plan and helping to fulfill the 2020-21 Annual Plan, which calls for projects like “stay local” initiatives to bolster enrollment from the Lexington area and increased community engagement.
Her immediate goal is to continue making the university attractive to prospective students — not only to increase the size of incoming classes, but to make diversity a priority. So, it’s not just about how good their grades were in high school or their test scores, but about “all kinds of things that make the experience here really good for all kinds of students,” Coen said.
To achieve its goals, the university must also articulate its value proposition to prospective students and their families, who are asking, “How will the money spent on tuition pay off down the road?” In other words, Coen said: “What are the benefits of all the things that a Transylvania education can offer in terms of internships and jobs and my career moving forward?”
To inform prospective students of all the university has to offer is a challenge during the coronavirus pandemic — one that calls for adaptability. Gone for now are the busloads of highschoolers visiting college open houses, youths who not only want to hear about the school has to offer but see things like the beautiful facilities. “How do we get them to feel the experience that they’re going to have here?” Coen asked. “That’s very difficult, but we have to figure out a way to do it.” Therefore, the message isn’t just about what classes are on tap — “it’s about the relationships, the connections and the full Transy experience. So how do we communicate that now when they’re not in front of us?” For a start, it will assuredly mean relying more on digital recruiting technologies like videoconferencing and virtual campus tours.
COVID-19 isn’t the only difficulty colleges are facing. “There are a lot of challenges in higher education right now,” Coen said. “There were challenges before the pandemic. There were especially challenges for the small, private liberal arts campus.”
One of these headwinds is demographics: there are simply fewer people in their late teens than there used to be. Another is economics: many families are struggling these days because of unemployment and other factors related to the pandemic.
But Coen believes Transylvania is in a “unique position” to meet these challenges. In her previous role, she visited many other liberal arts colleges that couldn’t match what Transylvania has going for it — for instance, outstanding faculty and leadership, a strong endowment and new facilities. Additionally, being in Lexington provides opportunities for jobs, internships and partnerships with businesses and other schools like the University of Kentucky.
While Transylvania has an opportunity to grow — to thrive even — while adapting the demands of today’s world, Coen said won’t be easy. “We’re going to have to do some things we’ve always done — and then be willing to change.”