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Midland University innovates for enrollment, offering scholarships in more than 30 sports

January 7, 2019

From a bevy of sports programs to hot new technology to promises of international travel, colleges are finding innovative ways to appeal to students.

The number of college-age Americans has stagnated, and colleges are aggressively vying for students to bolster enrollment. Midland University in Fremont offers scholarships in more than 30 sporting activities, including shotgun, dance, hockey, powerlifting and esports (also known as video games). Next fall, Midland also will give each student an iPad and an Apple Pencil.

Midland is far from alone in devising novel ways to court prospective students.

Hastings College next fall will give students an iPad Pro and an Apple Pencil and the guarantee of an international trip — all paid by the college and its donors. Those are two elements in a new approach that the college is calling “Hastings 2.0.”

Peru State College also is using the allure of sports by adding junior varsity programs in softball, baseball and men’s and women’s basketball. And Peru State will convert its cheerleading team from a noncompetitive squad into a competitive unit in fall 2019.

Creighton University has begun offering a Global Scholars Program in which the participants have four international trips while in school, as well as a seminar each semester to integrate global learning into the student’s major. The student is responsible for paying $7,500 per year for the program, in addition to Creighton’s tuition, fees, room and board.

There are also small ways in which a college can set itself apart. The University of Oregon, known as a mecca for track and field, offers a running tour of Eugene, Oregon, to college applicants. Doane University offers a three-year graduation guarantee in certain programs for students who stay on schedule and want to graduate early.

Doane also has begun offering an agribusiness major, which some current and prospective students have asked for, Doane spokesman Ryan Mueksch said. Concordia University of Seward will start offering a program in agricultural science in the fall.

Midland administrators talk about serving the market, or giving students what they demand and need, as opposed to the old model of telling students that they can take or leave what the college has to offer. The abundance of prospective students that came from the baby boom is long over, and colleges seek to separate from the herd by offering unusual opportunities and gifts.

Jody Horner, who took over as Midland’s president in 2015, says the college must be “relentlessly relevant” to today’s students. “Standing still is not an option in the industry today,” said Horner, who came to Midland after a 30-year career as an executive at Cargill, a Minnesota-based agricultural and industrial products company.

The business background, she said, has made her well aware of the importance of meeting the demands of the market, of maintaining a “nimble” enterprise that can make quick changes, and of taking risks.

At Cargill, she said, managers needed to be aware of consumer preferences and expectations. She brought that mindset to Midland.

She said she wants her administrators to be risk-takers who aren’t afraid. “And sometimes we hit a home run and sometimes we get some failures,” said Horner, who likes the term “failing forward,” which suggests much can be learned from failing.

Midland started offering competitive powerlifting the year after Horner arrived. Under her predecessor, now U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, scholarship-awarding activities such as men’s and women’s wrestling, shotgun sports, men’s and women’s bowling and competitive dance were added.

Midland says its 32 varsity sports are the most offered by a college in the state. UNO offers 15 intercollegiate sports, Doane and Hastings, 22, and UNL, 24.

Midland’s enrollment has increased from 650 in 2009 to 1,395 in 2018.

Joe Peña, a sophomore from San Antonio, is a 6-foot-3, 365-pound super-heavyweight powerlifter who was recruited to Midland. He won a national collegiate title in his weight division in April. Midland won the national team title, too, over Texas A&M-Kingsville and Ohio State, which took second and third, respectively.

Peña, who is studying nursing, said Midland is a rare college that provides scholarships to powerlifters. He also works at Midland as a resident assistant in the dormitory. His fiancée, Breanna Santos of San Antonio, also has a powerlifting scholarship to Midland and took fifth in her division in April.

Peña said he has had to adjust to life without great Mexican food. And he has had to adapt to cold weather. “It’s not horrible,” he said of snow.

Two semesters of Midland tuition, fees, housing and food cost a total of about $41,375 a year.

Colleges, both public and private, are getting more creative in recruitment, said Thomas Harnisch of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Public colleges, however, would have a harder time funding student travel overseas, Harnisch said. State senators and the public might not appreciate that expenditure, he said, so private colleges, which don’t rely on taxpayer funds, have more leeway to take risks.

Nevertheless, most schools want an edge through academic programs, activities, technology and other ways, he said. “Are these irrational moves? No, not at all,” Harnisch said. “It’s a really competitive marketplace.”

The Western Interstate Commission for Education in Boulder, Colorado, estimated that 3.27 million American students will graduate from high school in 2030, down close to 5 percent from 3.44 million in 2010. In the Midwest, which includes Nebraska and Iowa, 669,600 students are expected to graduate from high school in 2030, down about 14 percent from 776,800 in 2010.

Omar Correa, associate vice chancellor for enrollment management at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said students are “looking for an experience” from their college years, and not just strong academics or good sports programs. Students “are looking for all of it” today, Correa said.

Midland administrators say they have taken little if any criticism for offering such an array of sports and other competitive activities. If having an esports team will bring students to campus and motivate them to get degrees, that’s good, they say.

Midland’s growth has been well-received by its supporters. A few years ago, Midland began a campaign to raise $30 million by 2020 for academic programs, scholarships, operations and facilities.

Jessica Janssen, vice president for institutional advancement, said Midland reached $32 million this year, so it upped the goal to $50 million. Some colleges are cutting back, she said, while Midland forges ahead.

Midland celebrates its 100th year in Fremont this school year. “It’s an exciting time,” said Merritt Nelson, vice president for enrollment management and marketing.

The college has a contract with the Fremont Family YMCA in which every full-time Midland student is automatically a Y member. Some of Midland’s teams also practice there.

Nelson announced in November that Midland would embark on a partnership with the Nebraska Attack girls basketball program. Many Attack players will be automatically guaranteed at least an $18,000 Midland scholarship each year as long as they commit to play basketball their freshman year at Midland.

Midland administrators said the university also has a partnership with Methodist Fremont Health to share a high-fidelity simulation lab and equipment. And it has a program with the Omaha Public Schools in which Midland provides a flexible program so that paraprofessionals can become teachers.

“I’m absolutely having a blast,” Horner said of her work as a college president. But she said Midland has just about satiated its desire for more scholarship sports programs.

“We’re getting close to the limit,” she said. “I’m not saying I won’t sneak one or two more in.”

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