Roanoke College has reintroduced itself.
The private liberal arts college in Salem announced a refreshed visual identity last month with an updated logo and graphics, its first update in about 20 years.
But the visual overhaul is just one aspect of the 181-year-old college’s evolution. It’s part of a bigger slate of changes in the works under the guidance of President Frank Shushok Jr., who joined Roanoke College last year.
“Everyone at Roanoke College right now is asking ourselves, what does our community need, and how can we position ourselves to respond to those needs?” Shushok said.
The rebrand comes at a time when small private colleges are struggling to keep pace in an increasingly competitive college landscape.
Not only do students have plenty of options to pursue a bachelor’s degree, from large state schools to completely online programs, but some students are casting aside the idea that they need a four-year degree at all to have a career, opting instead for two-year education, certifications or on-the-job training.
All the while, a shrinking number of young people in the United States has small schools like Roanoke College, with a student population of around 1,800, pulling out all the stops to attract a share of a smaller pool of applicants. The school’s enrollment has declined by about 235 students over the past 10 years.
Conveying the value of attending the college beyond the students already attending is especially important since the pandemic, Shushok said, citing a Wall Street Journal survey this year that found 56% of Americans believe a college education isn’t worth the cost. Five years prior, 47% of respondents believed it wasn’t worth the cost.
“We’ve got to explain ourselves really well,” he said, with increased clarity about the skills being taught and what gaining those skills can do to enhance someone’s life during college and beyond.
Many smaller private colleges are feeling greater pressure to attract students because of their size, explained Brian Pusser, associate professor of higher education at the University of Virginia. “These colleges are tuition-dependent. They do not have significant state subsidies, and where they do not have large endowments, any reduction in enrollments is a very serious problem,” he said.
Roanoke College has an endowment — contributions that are invested for long-term funding — of about $138 million, based on tax forms from 2021. The University of Lynchburg, another private school with similar enrollment, has about $109 million in its endowment funds.
Meanwhile, Virginia Military Institute, the state’s smallest public four-year college, has an endowment worth almost $690 million.
Some schools have reset their tuition to try to boost enrollment, reducing the annual advertised price to more closely reflect what students and their families actually pay to attend.
Randolph College, University of Lynchburg and Sweet Briar College have all reduced their sticker prices. Hollins University, Mary Baldwin University and Ferrum College now offer free tuition to some in-state students.
None of them has more than around 2,500 students.
Roanoke College also reduced its tuition by almost 30% (about $10,000) for the start of the 2022 academic year, a move made during the tenure of its previous president, Michael Maxey. It continues to discount its tuition for students via financial aid packages, which can make attendance more attractive for an accepted student.
The current sticker price for tuition and room and board is now about $52,000, but the college says the average net price is between about $27,000 and $32,000 per year.
Roanoke College hopes to grow to its biggest student body ever — about 2,400 students — over the next 10 years.
Its success will likely depend not on a single factor to attract applicants, but a combination platter that’s a blend of academics, campus life and local community.
Adding academic options
One way to attract applicants (and their tuition dollars) is to offer more academic programs.
Roanoke College launches an MBA program, its first graduate degree, this month, and Shushok says it’s the first of several graduate programs the school will offer.
Roanoke College has also created a program to help computer science students get into Virginia Tech’s graduate school to continue their studies. In 2020, it added a data science major, and this fall it will introduce a screen studies major and minor focusing on the history of film.
Adding academic programs can be a tricky balance, Pusser said. Small schools need to cut costs and increase enrollment in tandem in order to increase revenue. Adding majors and degrees costs money, especially for teaching personnel. “It’s a difficult combination to balance,” Pusser said. Adding graduate programs can be helpful to meet demand for advanced training, but doing so at a small school could lead to shifts in student life and even the school’s mission.
For Roanoke College, diversification seems to be key: draw in students in enough subject areas that those tuition dollars are spread out across the school’s offerings.
Soon, Roanoke College will transition from 15 academic departments to a four-school structure, Shushok said, with divisions for communication, culture and the arts; health, science and sustainability; government, education and society; and business, economics and analytics. Think of it like Cliffs Notes for the college, to clearly explain some of the school’s specialty learning areas quickly. The move is also expected to be more efficient for the college’s operations, and increase collaboration across disciplines — which in turn can further boost visibility.
“Part of the challenge with a small college that is deeply committed to the liberal arts is that [people outside the college] don’t understand what liberal arts is, and they might even have a negative connotation with the word ‘liberal.’” There’s a communication problem, Shushok said, in describing what people actually study at such a place.
Is football the answer?
Beyond the classroom, Roanoke College hopes to turn fans into students by relaunching the school’s football team.
It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that feels urgent, with a June 1 deadline for the college to raise $1.2 million in order to start recruiting this year.
Roanoke College had offered varsity football since the 1890s but paused its football team during World War II. Shushok said restarting the team had been discussed at various points over the years, but there was concern that doing so would be too expensive. Shushok said that’s not exactly the case. The school doesn’t have to build a stadium — it already has nearby Salem Stadium, which currently hosts the annual NCAA Division III football tournament. And the college’s Alumni Field, “with a little investment,” Shushok said, can serve as a practice facility.
Roanoke College currently has 10 men’s teams and 10 women’s teams that compete in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, a NCAA Division III conference whose members include Hollins, Averett University, Randolph-Macon College and Washington & Lee University. In 2022 it added men’s and women’s cycling teams.
Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, which reduces a need for capital in launching (or relaunching) an NCAA sport.
A football season can draw people to campus and increase awareness of the school in a region that loves the sport, which can bring in revenue for the school. But it can also increase enrollment. Once football gets off the ground, it’ll be accompanied by a competitive cheer team and a marching band — the latter of which Shushok said is one of the top reasons potential students end up not applying, according to his conversations with admissions staffers.
The enrollment boost from the three co-curricular activities would be about 130 students, Shushok said.
But football isn’t a guaranteed success. In a study of 31 schools that added football between 2007 and 2015, the Council of Independent Colleges, an association of private nonprofit colleges, found that while the schools saw an initial boost in enrollment and revenue, those increases leveled off within a few years of introducing the sport.
Just like adding academic programs, adding co-curriculars like sports teams come with additional costs. The benefits of community engagement likely to come from adding football, Pusser said, have to be “weighed against the likelihood that football would likely not increase net revenue.”
As of mid-May, the college had raised close to $1 million toward its goal, according to Melanie Wine Tolan, vice president for marketing and communications.
What’s a food truck got to do with it?
Whether it’s at a football game or one of Roanoke College’s dozen other sports team’s events, attendees are likely to run into arguably the tastiest part of the college’s rebrand: the food truck.
Decked out in the college’s colors, the truck has served up treats at Alumni Weekend and admissions events, and plans to hit festivities in nearby communities starting this summer.
“A food truck came up for sale and everyone thought this would be an awesome thing to have on campus,” said Tolan. “It’s great to tell our story as it’s rolling down the street.”
The food truck was one of several parts of the rebrand that got delayed by COVID-19. But excitement around launching it during Alumni Weekend built so much that after its design was complete, it was hidden for several weeks, Erika Jones, mobile event services manager, said. “Nobody even had a chance to get a sneak peek of what was going on,” she said.
The truck allows the college to interact with people on and off campus in new ways. At an admissions event, student ambassadors handed out bottled water and ice cream. Off campus, the truck can offer food or merchandise at events like Salem’s “After Five” concert series.
The truck, which is outfitted with a variety of appliances for preparing fresh food, appears to be the only mobile campus food truck in the area. But across the nation, food trucks are popping up as permanent fixtures on campus. Indiana University launched two in 2019, one opened at Tulane in Louisiana in 2020, and Bowie State in Maryland started one in 2021.
“It’s been a really nice process,” Jones said. “And I’m looking forward to what comes next, because I can tell you that I feel like a pretty cool cat driving around town.”
So far, the rebrand seems to be resonating with the Roanoke College community. “We know we’re doing a good job when we’re getting positive feedback, when people are paying more attention,” Tolan said. But only time will tell whether it’s doing what the school hopes to accomplish: amplify attention to the tune of increased applicants.
Clarification, May 26, 2023: Roanoke College has 10 men’s teams and 10 women’s teams that compete in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference. An earlier version of this story was unclear on the total numbers.