Strategically Managing the Future of Lindsey Wilson College: Enhancing Market Position and Reducing Student Departure
Fowles, Gareth P.
Hayden, Joshua M.
The following research project was in response to a request by Lindsey Wilson College (LWC) for evidence-based data to inform two areas of the institution's strategic management plan. Institutional leaders are interested in gaining a deeper understanding of LWC's market position and the factors leading to high levels of first-year student departure. To meet this request, the project team conducted a mixed-methods approach using data from a variety of published and unpublished sources and administered surveys with LWC's admitted, non-enrolled students and enrolled freshmen students. Qualitative interviews with LWC's enrolled freshmen supplemented the study's quantitative data and elicited in-depth responses. A strategic marketing analysis examined LWC's market position beginning with the identification of LWC's top five competitor institutions. While LWC has primarily focused their competitive strategies on a private institution: Campbellsville University; four of Lindsey Wilson's top five competitors are public institutions. The highest percentage of Lindsey Wilson's admitted, non-enrolled students attended Western Kentucky University while Campbellsville University surfaced as the only competing private institution, attracting the third highest percentage of admitted, non-enrolled students among the top five competitor institutions. Analysis of LWC's market position was based on Kotler's (2005) customer-oriented marketing mix consisting of customer value, costs, convenience, and communications. Student perceptions were collected from LWC's admitted, non-enrolled and enrolled freshmen students using the Admitted Student Questionnaire (ASQ) and the Enrolled Student Questionnaire (ESQ) and were analyzed within the context of the institution's marketing mix. To enhance LWC's understanding of its market position, the project team used the marketing mix analysis to identify the institution's competitive marketing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. LWC's strengths lie in its ability to subsidize student attendance through institutional grants, the helpfulness of faculty and staff, and the institution's family-oriented environment. Institutional weaknesses include a high "sticker price" compared with public competitors, limited academic programs, and a lack of a definitive value proposition. Opportunities for LWC include potential for increased enrollment as a result of greater federal allocation for Pell Grants and the willingness of community organizations to form partnerships with the institution. Finally, threats lie in LWC's location in rural Adair County and the lower net cost of attendance at competing public institutions. The second part of the study focused on reducing first-year student departure. LWC's institutional leaders are concerned with the challenges associated with retaining a greater percentage of first-year students. In 2007-2008, LWC's first-year retention rate was 52.6%; well below the national first- to second-year retention rate of 67.2% for private, 4-year open access institutions (America College Testing [ACT], 2008). According to the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement report, LWC ranked nationally among the top 10% of colleges with a "supportive campus environment" and received a high rating on the "level of academic challenge." Given these favorable results, both of which were expected to impact student departure levels, institutional leaders are in a quandary as to factors that are adversely impacting student persistence levels. A cluster analysis identified LWC's peer institutions to create a comparative context in which to examine issues of student departure. The analysis produced nine national peer institutions, including nearby Campbellsville University and the University of the Cumberlands. LWC was then compared with these institutions on characteristics related to student departure. Despite LWC's encouraging increase in retention rates over the past three years, the college's retention rates remain lower than many of its peers. An in-depth analysis of first-year student departure was divided into first- and second- semester analyses. First-semester results revealed that students with higher family income, less social affiliation, unable to make independent decisions, and have minimal interaction with faculty are at greater risk of departure. The second- semester results revealed that a student's external environment, namely parental support, is directly related to student persistence. Academic integration, rather than social integration, is directly related to student persistence. Institutional integrity is linked to both social and academic integration, while commitment of the institution to student welfare directly affects social integration and subsequent commitment to the institution. In addition, living on campus and working while enrolled, negatively impacts subsequent commitment to the institution and social integration, respectively. From the analysis of student departure at LWC and an analysis of a national sample of open-admission institutions, the project team articulated structural limitations that LWC faces in reducing student departure. In its mission to educate academically underprepared students, the size of LWC's enrollment and its commitment to fostering a nurturing environment, creates an institutional challenge to retaining students. Despite these limitations, instructional expenditures have a positive effect on increasing student persistence. The project team made 21 recommendations including the expansion and differentiation of LWC's marketing strategy to a broader audience with an emphasis on the institution's value proposition. To improve first-year student departure, LWC must engage parents and families in the academic and social environment. Academic integration serves as a vital component to reducing first-year student departure at LWC and should become a focus of Freshman Seminar courses. Institutional leaders must ensure the alignment of the college's mission, values, policies, and procedures, while demonstrating an abiding concern for the growth and development of students. Despite the challenges LWC is faced with, the college is poised for a promising future.