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Antioch College President Tom Manley spoke with freshman Eva Westermeyer at a meet-and-greet event earlier this month during welcome week. Westermeyer is one of 44 students in this year’s incoming class, hailing from 15 states. Thirty-nine percent of the class of 2020 are students of color, and 46 percent are the first in their family to attend college. (Photo by Dylan Taylor-Lehman)

Antioch College President Tom Manley spoke with freshman Eva Westermeyer at a meet-and-greet event earlier this month during welcome week. Westermeyer is one of 44 students in this year’s incoming class, hailing from 15 states. Thirty-nine percent of the class of 2020 are students of color, and 46 percent are the first in their family to attend college. (Photo by Dylan Taylor-Lehman)

New Antioch College class, smaller than hoped

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A few weeks ago, incoming Antioch students participated in welcome-week activities across campus. Among other options, students were able to roll balls of dirt and compost in wildflower seeds to create seed balls, which can be thrown in fertile spots to grow wildflowers. Whether the activity was intended to be symbolic or not — planting the seeds that will grow into something beautiful — the students were able to get to know one another and become a little more acclimated to the campus that will be their home away from home for the better part of the next four years.

The new class represents a moment of both promise and peril for the college. Antioch’s incoming class, the class of 2020, is a small group. At just 44 students, it is a number well below the 75 to 80 students the college had hoped to attract, according to a figure cited by Antioch President Tom Manley in his September state of the college address to alumni.

The size of the incoming class is a “number the college can work with, but that is not ideal,” said Lori Collins-Hall, Antioch’s provost, in a recent interview.

The small class size reflects nationwide trends, but it also reflects Antioch-specific factors, such as last year’s lower level of Horace Mann funding and turnover in the admissions department. And news of  the college’s accreditation, which was a great boon to the college, came too late in the recruitment cycle to make a difference this year.

However, college officials expect next year’s enrollment to meet the college’s projections, Collins-Hall said. Antioch’s newly accredited status will open up new opportunities for both students and the college, while some new recruitment strategies aim to address the drop in attendance and the changing ways students are approaching higher education.

Who is the class of 2020?

The class of 2020, while lower in number than anticipated, is notably accomplished and diverse, said Collins-Hall.

Antioch’s incoming class hails from 15 far-flung states, including California, Minnesota and Michigan, with 22 students attending from Ohio. The students chose Antioch for diverse reasons. Carlos Mendez, a freshman coming from Oberlin, said he was drawn to Antioch because of its small student-to-teacher ratio. Eva Westermeyer, from Centerville, has always been drawn to Yellow Springs and was intrigued by the school’s closing-reopening saga, while Oliver Garrott from New Mexico was drawn to the co-op program and plans to use that opportunity to explore the intersection of mental healthcare and civil rights. Interviewed during their first week on campus, the students were at the same time shy and cheerful, excited for the college experience but at the earliest stages of figuring out what that experience would be.

The students represent a broad range of interests and experience, Collins-Hall said, including cosplayers, members of political campaigns, high school gay-straight club participants and Pokémon Go fanatics. Thirty-nine percent of the incoming class are students of color. Thirty-nine percent of the class is female, 51 percent male, seven percent transgendered and two percent gender queer. According to surveys conducted by the college, significant percentages of the students said they chose Antioch for its “hands-on learning,” and that the physical campus and the surrounding community made Antioch even more appealing. Incoming students all rank in the top third of ACT scores, while their average high school GPA is a B and transfer GPA is a B+. Forty-six percent of the class of 2020 are the first in their family to attend college.

“They are a mighty group in what they bring to the college,” Collins-Hall said. “While the class is small, they represent a continuing legacy of recruiting a body of bright, talented and diverse students who want to do good in the world.”

Factors affecting class size

According to the Sept. 8 issue of The Antioch Record, the college newspaper, the college met or exceeded its enrollment goals each year from 2015-2018 (with 75–85 students each year), but recruited only 66 of its anticipated 85 students in the class that entered last fall, and 44 of 85 students for this year’s entering class. The decreased attendance over the past two years coincides with decreasing financial aid in the form of half-tuition scholarships, a combination that Collins-Hall said is directly responsible for this year’s low class number.

Previously, a big draw to Antioch was the Horace Mann Fellowship, which awarded students 100 percent tuition, regardless of a student’s financial need, starting with the revived college’s first class, which entered in 2011. The school relied heavily on the promise of tuition paid in full to draw students to Antioch for the first four years after it reopened, according to Collins-Hall.

For the last two years, however, the Horace Mann Fellowship has covered only 50 percent of the cost of tuition. Despite the promise of significant financial aid, parents and prospective students were wary of paying for a degree from an unaccredited college, Collins-Hall said. In other words, robust scholarships helped make up for the lack of accreditation. The admissions office found it more challenging to recruit with half tuition. Without the full tuition offer, the college didn’t have the same “market pop and visibility,” she said, and admissions numbers dropped over the two years that the scholarship has been reduced.

“We didn’t sell the college — we sold free tuition,” Collins-Hall said. “You can’t underestimate the challenge of recruiting students to an unaccredited college. That’s why they were offered such hefty financial aid packages.”

Other factors contributing to the low incoming class numbers include decreasing college attendance nationwide. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. college enrollment fell four percent from 2010 to 2014. Lower attendance at traditional four-year institutions also reflects the changing nature of what students are looking for, Collins-Hall said. More students are choosing two-year career programs or attending community colleges before transitioning to other universities or programs. Antioch has not been immune to either of these trends.

Moreover, the admissions department at Antioch also experienced significant turnover and restructuring over the past year. Previous Dean of Admissions Micah Canal left in September of last year, after which Harold Wingood, an interim dean of admissions, took over in November, and worked for six months before Collins-Hall assumed the job in June. Two other admissions staff members left the college over the summer. Resources were stretched further when the recruitment and admissions process for this year’s class and the next overlapped, owing to the scramble of a department in flux and a college recruitment process that has moved steadily later in the year, as students themselves hold their spot in several schools and defer final decisions into the summer.

However, the fact that Antioch has received accreditation and has developed strong strategies for recruitment and retention bodes well for future classes, Collins-Hall said. The college also hired Bill Carter as a dean of admissions last week, who is coming to the school with a long background in higher education, most recently as the director of admissions at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

New funding, new strategies

Thanks to its new accreditation, which was awarded in July, the college will be able to tap into a variety of funding options for its students, such as the GI Bill, federal student loans and parent plus loans. The school will be able to take advantage of federal work-study programs and VA benefits, which are unavailable to unaccredited institutions. Accreditation also makes the college eligible for CFUS funding, which allows the college to enroll international students. Increasing the number of international students would be beneficial to the college on many fronts, Collins-Hall said.

While the Horace Mann Fellowship will never be awarded in the same way again, she said, new financial aid options and scholarships will be available in the future. Collins-Hall couldn’t comment on the specifics of upcoming financial aid, as the college is still putting together the financial aid packages it will offer students next year, but she said she expects that information to be available in November.

Other changes will allow Antioch to recruit more effectively, Collins-Hall believes. As an accredited college, Antioch can participate in the Common Application for colleges, which allows students to fill out one application and send it to a number of schools simultaneously. The process makes applying for colleges very simple, she said, and has quickly proven to be helpful to the recruitment process. The college has already received 10 applications for next year’s class through Common App.

Going forward, college leaders have decided to institute rolling admissions, admitting students as they apply instead of adhering to strict deadlines that often run late in the school year.

Another change that will likely increase next year’s class stems from changes to the FAFSA application. (FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.) Previously, applicants were required to include a copy of the current year’s tax return to determine aid eligibility, meaning that FAFSA forms couldn’t be turned in until taxes were filed. However, applicants are now able to use the previous year’s tax returns, meaning that the application process can begin much earlier, and thus lead to earlier decision making about which school a student will attend.

Focus on marketing

Beyond these changes, college leaders are crafting strategies to increase future enrollment while preserving and enlarging student body diversity. The college is working on a marketing message that highlights the great things at Antioch, and why they are worth paying for, Collins-Hall said.

“In addition to the fact that we are now an accredited institution, we’ve been working on strategy, marketing, and addressing the gaps in telling the Antioch story,” she said. “We’re focusing on why you want to invest in an Antioch education, and why that will put you ahead.”

For example, class of 2020 students cited Antioch’s emphasis on social justice and its status as a gender progressive school as key factors in their decision to attend the college, Collins-Hall said. Highlighting the college’s strengths, such as sustainability and farm-to-table organic farming practices, will continue to be a part of the recruitment approach, with recruitment teams focusing specifically on those aspects.

And once students have been accepted, officials want to keep them engaged with Antioch. Students will be able to take pre-enrollment classes and online seminars, and will be more easily able to transfer community college credits, she said. In fact, 25 percent of the class of 2020 are transfer students.

Another strategy entails reaching out to “affinity schools,” such as high schools with educational approaches similar to that of Antioch. Recruitment hasn’t been attempted in this way before, said Collins-Hall. The perspective of freshman Adam Green, from Columbus, seems to validate this approach. He was drawn to Antioch because of its similarity to his high school’s emphasis on experiential learning, which he maintains is a much better teacher than a textbook.

At the welcome-week events, students seemed happy to be on campus. After all, it was their first week at college, one of the foremost American rites of passage. Freshman Mendez said he felt like he’d been on the Antioch campus for 15 days, when it had only been three. Garrott was a few thousand miles away from his home in New Mexico, but he said “it’s not too big a deal” to be on the other side of the country, given his excitement at being at Antioch. And Green said that he already feels part of the Antioch community.

“I’ve met people I can tell are going to become my best friends,” he said. “It feels cool to be surrounded by that feeling.”

This year’s incoming class reflects the diversity Antioch has always valued in its students, Collins-Hall said, and she is equally optimistic about future classes. With accreditation, new sources of financial aid and the settling down of the admissions department, officials hope to maintain that diversity in coming years, but in proportionally larger numbers.

“We are actively planning to successfully hit our targets for next year,” she said. “And there’s no reason to believe we won’t hit that mark.”

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