WAYNE, Neb. (AP) — Wayne State College might look a little different these days. The campus is buzzing with more students, events and programs, as well as new buildings and renovations.
At least, that’s what Marysz Rames has noticed since starting as its president in 2015.
This fall, a 9.9 percent enrollment increase meant 720 new first-year students.
“Fall was very different. It was busy, it was exciting,” she told the Norfolk Daily News. “It’s a very different place than it was four years ago.”
The college’s first-year class was the largest since 1995. The college also welcomed 240 new transfer students and 660 graduate students this semester — increases of 14.8 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
In the midst of other state colleges posting generally flat enrollment numbers this academic year, why did Wayne State have such significant gains?
Her response? It doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen through just one person’s efforts.
Rames’ initial step was to listen to others and have conversations — first with groups on campus, then area organizations.
“As I went around (campus), they said (we’re a) best-kept secret,” she said. “We had started a downturn in enrollment; it’s hard to meet your mission if you don’t have students you’re serving.”
She also heard a lot about the college’s existing academic programs and decided to make some key changes by adding new programs and giving students more flexibility for additional majors, minors and endorsements. Since 2015, Wayne State has added 40 programs and bolstered its online and graduate programs.
Some of these programs were formed through area collaborations, like an accelerated nursing program and agriculture program partnership. Wayne State also recently started participating in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Rural Law Opportunities Program based on a donor’s suggestion.
As part of these conversations, Wayne State representatives visited every area community to meet with key stakeholders.
“As we’ve gone, we’ve constantly opened the door to listen to stakeholders, listening to school districts, listening to what the needs are in the medical profession,” Rames said.
These partnerships also help inform the college’s academic programs to make sure students are prepared to excel in the workforce.
“For the curriculum to remain relevant, we need formal mechanisms to hear about changing (industry) needs and we need to be open-minded to make the changes so our students get the right academic experience,” she said.
After building up the school’s academic offerings, it also was important to ensure that facilities could accommodate those programs, Rames said.
The college opened two new facilities this year, with a third expected to open soon. The Criminal Justice Crime Scene Investigation Facility and renovated Memorial Stadium press box both opened this fall, and the Center for Applied Technology will be opening in January.
In addition to being the location for industrial technology education and other programs, the Center for Applied Technology will serve as a regional center for workforce development and education.
Notably, Wayne State is partnering with area school districts to provide a space for career academies. This will include Educational Service Units 1 and 2, as well as other nearby schools.
“We made the commitment from the beginning that we’ll serve as a career academy. … It’s a real partnership,” she said. “For me, that partnership and seeing (the center) as an important facility to really expand economic and workforce development — it’s exciting to be a part of that.”
Of course, these efforts are nothing without students on campus. Rames said another priority was sharing the college’s story. The strategic growth plan included drawing prospective students to campus with a comprehensive marketing plan and enticing scholarship packages.
Bringing all these elements together is what caused Wayne State’s enrollment increase, she said.
“The entire campus came together around the strategic enrollment plan,” she said. “We did it based on our strengths and who we are as an institution. That’s really why we turned the tide.”
She’s quick to point out that these kinds of results aren’t just caused by one person. She said the college’s deans, faculty and staff go above and beyond in providing a personal and impactful education. For example, she said an alumna spoke at a recent event about a college dean who helped her get to class in the middle of a snowstorm.
“I’ve worked at bigger schools, and you don’t see that like you do at Wayne State College,” she said. “Our faculty really care about those students, and they know what’s going on in their lives. They want to help them be successful, and that’s huge.”
After this notable year, Rames said the next step for the college is to stabilize numbers moving forward and stay focused on a plan built around excellent academics.
“Those are big numbers for us,” she said. “Institutions build, build, build, but you have to start with academic programs, and then you build facilities to match that.”
Rames believes her team will help Wayne State see its mission through, both on campus and in the region.
“It’s about surrounding yourself with great people who really care about this institution and our mission, and rallying around what we’re trying to accomplish and the work we do with students,” she said. “I really believe in this team and the work we’re doing for Northeast Nebraska and the state.”