Scholarships mark first steps toward tackling enrollment decline
Humboldt State University’s battle against declining enrollment continues.
In the last month, HSU announced three four-year, $1,000-a-year scholarships for local students (‘Humboldt First’), for Fortuna High graduates and for students living on campus.
“‘Humboldt First’ reflects a direct investment in our local service area,” Interim Vice President of Enrollment Management Jason Meriwether said. “As part of our strategy to grow enrollment, we need to dramatically increase the number of students from our local area. In fact, our goal is to triple the number of local students in the next four years.”
The Humboldt First scholarship will be provided to all new HSU students graduating from high schools in Humboldt, Del Norte, Mendocino and Trinity counties. The Dan and Cindy Phillips Fortuna Scholarship will be available to all Fortuna High graduates, even those transferring from the College of the Redwoods. HSU’s scholarship for on-campus residents will be awarded to students as long as they live on campus, up to four years.
All three scholarships begin in Fall 2020.
Meriwether said HSU is in the process of implementing multiple strategies to recruit local students, including educating locals about the programs offered at HSU and introducing ceremonies for Humboldt-area high school students who qualify to attend HSU.
“We sincerely want to compete for students who want to leave Humboldt or don’t want to go to college,” Meriwether said. “So we are working harder to make sure they know that HSU is a real option for them.”
Paul Hilton, an HSU political science major, journalism minor and McKinleyville High School graduate, said he liked the sound of the scholarship.
“Contrary to what maybe a lot of people think, there is a want—there is a desire—to go straight to HSU from some of the local schools,” Hilton said.
Hilton went to College of the Redwoods after graduating high school to avoid the higher costs of HSU. Hilton said he probably would’ve gone straight to HSU had the scholarship existed previously.
However, Hilton acknowledged that many local students don’t want to go to HSU regardless of cost.
“I think a lot of it just has to do with opportunities,” Hilton said. “A lot of locals dislike growing up here, and a large part of that is because of a lack of opportunities. But there are a lot of locals, myself included, who love Humboldt but still hate the lack of opportunities.”
After CR, Hilton nearly attended Southern Oregon University, where he thought he saw more certainty in finding a future career path. Yet, in the end, he opted for HSU.
“I came here because of proximity,” Hilton said. “Some people might just call that laziness, but because of the costs and everything I just decided that it would be easiest for me to stay here.”
Hilton attributed HSU’s enrollment decline mainly to a lack of opportunities in the area, but he also noted a lack of support for minorities.
“I think the main common factor between years and semesters has been opportunity in the area,” Hilton said. “But now it’s even more and maybe even a little overlapped by the lack of sense of security for minorities.”
Meriwether said he believes HSU does offer opportunities, but the university doesn’t do enough to let people know they exist.
“I think local students think they know Humboldt, but I don’t think we’ve done the job we need to do of reintroducing them to Humboldt,” Meriwether said.
Eureka High School Principal Jennifer Johnson shared Meriwether’s excitement for the new scholarships. Johnson said she has already seen four to five times the usual number of EHS students going to HSU’s preview day. Johnson said only one EHS student went to HSU in 2018. For context, EHS has 1,230 enrolled students this year.
“We only had one last year,” Johnson said over the phone. “I think it was a real wake-up call for HSU administration when they actually ran the numbers on our school.”
Johnson said local students that want to stay in Humboldt often opt for CR instead of HSU due to the costs—although Johnson said she thinks many students and parents just don’t understand how cheap HSU can be with financial aid.
As for the local students that want to leave Humboldt, Johnson echoed Meriwether by saying that HSU is not like the rest of Humboldt.
“I tell them, ‘Move to Arcata, it’s a whole different world,’” Johnson said.
Meriwether said HSU is currently restructuring its recruitment strategies to include more social media targeting along with more visits to schools. Meriwether also pointed to recent recruitment improvements such as an increase in available tour times and the elimination of tour fees.
Meriwether added that HSU has to not only improve recruitment, but also retention.
“We have to also re-recruit our current students,” Meriwether said. “We can’t just take for granted that they’re going to be here. We also have to give them a positive campus experience.”
Ultimately, Meriwether hopes HSU can begin telling a new story for itself that will attract and retain more students.
“History is important,” Meriwether said. “But we also have to share that there’s a different approach to leadership, there’s a different approach to response and if things happen on campus it’s because we are trying to create a student-first experience. That’s what it’s all about.”