On July 6, 2020, Beth Clarke, the former senior executive director of admissions strategy and counseling at Sweet Briar College, was officially appointed as the new vice president of enrollment at Millsaps.
With over a decade of experience in the field of higher education and admissions, Clarke is set to play a central role in Millsaps’s admissions efforts for the fall, and help to counteract the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on the enrollment of both current and new students. The Purple and White reached out to Clarke for an interview in July.
Topics discussed in the interview included Clarke’s background in higher education and how that led to her appointment, her current plans to drive up enrollment, and how she is addressing the concerns of current students, among others.
Below is the full version of the interview with Clarke, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Purple and White: Tell me a little about yourself. What are your past experiences and what brought you to Millsaps?
Absolutely. So, I went to a small liberal arts college that is also Methodist affiliated; it’s Virginia Wesleyan University, and that’s in the Virginia Beach, Virginia area, and had a fantastic experience. I was a first-generation college student. Virginia Wesleyan gave me a scholarship, it’s kind of a similar story to what you just described. I was connected with the faculty early on, lived the small class sizes, and the opportunity for me to really grow in a small school setting. So, I really benefited from that experience, and I was involved with student life quite a bit as a student and applied for a job in the admissions office right after graduation. So, I worked for my alma mater in admissions for the first five years of my career, and that was really a great springboard for me because I was talking about something I was already passionate about, but I was also learning about higher education and the profession of admissions in general. I went into the position thinking that it would be a great foundation for an eventual career path in public relations or communications, and in the end, I ended up really loving admissions and loving higher education.
So, I decided to get my graduate degree in Higher Education Administration from the College of William and Mary, and I was doing that while I was working full time at Virginia Wesleyan, so that worked out great. I continued working full time in the evenings before moving out to Williamsburg for my graduate degree. Then I left admissions and did marketing for a couple of years, and really missed higher ed, so I came back in Alumni Relations and Development.
Really similar skill set. It’s just relationship building. Both jobs are really focused on that. In admissions, you’re building relationships with students and families and in alumni relationship with was relationships with alumni of the college. I also did fundraising and development work from 2008 to 2010, and during that time I was cultivating relationships with donors to the college. This is all at Virginia Wesleyan. And then, I went back to admissions in 2010, because it really was my first passion. I missed working with students. Alumni relations were fun, but students are just different. Different energy, the different vibe from being more on campus, and I really liked the impact I was able to have following a student through their four years at an institution. It was really gratifying to see that students grow during those four years and then walk across the stage at graduation. So, when I went back to admissions I decided “Okay, this is where I want to stay, this is my happy place”, and have been doing it ever since. I left Virginia Wesleyan in 2018 to go to Sweet Briar College, and I worked at Sweet Briar for two years. I don’t know if your readers will be familiar, but Sweet Briar almost closed in 2015. It’s a women’s college, and they almost closed. The board of trustees and the president attempted to close the institution, and the alumni rallied and raised $20 million to save the school.
P&W: Must be a great school then!
It is a great school, and particularly it’s one of the last ones for women’s education, so they’re really committed to that goal and the purpose. So, I saw it as a really unique opportunity to go do admissions because they were a school that really came from the ashes. They almost closed and they really needed help increasing enrollment, and I saw it as a real challenge to go there. It was similar to what I had done before, a small college background. Then, when this opportunity opened up, I was really interested because I was at the stage of my career where I wanted to have a VP level position, but at a school that was more like my alma mater, Virginia Wesleyan, and Millsaps is to me, from everything I’ve experienced so far, it’s just like my alma mater. Methodist affiliated, small, tight-knit community, a history of academic excellence but also a history of a lot of value added for the students, and I think that’s a key part of Millsaps’ story. Students come here and they experience so much from hands on opportunities and relationships with faculty, and leave Millsaps having developed all the skills they need to be successful for life. There are great alumni stories coming out of that, so I’m excited to be here.
P&W: What sort of plan do you and the admissions team have in place so far to kind of drive up enrollment, even in the midst of all that’s going on? From what I understand, there are 182 new students that have been admitted. Is that true?
That is true. Not admitted, but enrolled, so we admitted a much larger group. That’s a group that is committed to coming to Millsaps in August. From my understanding, that’s down from previous years, and much of that can be attributed to what’s happening with COVID. It’s a challenge for every college and university this year to even maintain enrollment, let alone increase first year enrollment. I feel some real opportunity for us in the upcoming year to focus on local recruitment, specifically transfer students and students in Mississippi and Louisiana that are close by, that maybe we’re considering other options for college, and with COVID now they’re rethinking those options. Perhaps their school has decided to be completely online for the fall, or perhaps they just don’t want to go as far away from home, and since Millsaps has chosen to have in person instruction, we can go out to them and say “If you’re reconsidering your college home of the fall, we would love to invite to come and study at Millsaps because we’ll have in person instruction. We’re small, so we’re able to socially-distance in the classroom, and we’re able to accommodate in a way that larger institutions may not be able to during the coronavirus”.
That’s going to be our focus here, at least for the next couple of weeks because we still have time to recruit for students for the fall. So, we actually are sending out communications to students who have either shown interest to Millsaps in the past or were admitted this year but they haven’t told us yes or no yet. We’re even going to students that may have withdrawn their acceptance already, but their decision about college for the fall may have changed at this point. So, I think it’s important to go out to them and remind them that Millsaps will have in person instruction, I’m hoping that we will get some more additional students from those communications.
P&W: So, you’re mostly trying to focus your resources on students whose circumstances have changed and bringing them to Millsaps by showing them that it can accommodate those circumstances?
Absolutely, yep. That’s our immediate goal. Now long-term, for the next recruitment cycle, pretty soon we’re going to open up our application of fall of 2021. That application opens up August 1st, and at that point our focus will shift more towards recruiting the next year’s class. We’re having to get really innovative this year in how we reach those students because we won’t have as many in person college fairs to attend, we won’t be able to visit as many high schools as we are usually able to visit, so we’re having to get creative by signing up for virtual college fairs by offering more virtual options from our admissions office for students to take advantage of if they still don’t feel comfortable visiting a college campus. Maybe their family situation puts them at risk, we have to provide more virtual opportunities in a more organized fashion for those students.
P&W: Millsaps has a lot of on campus tours, so I was wondering how the school would be transferred in a sort of virtual format and how the school would be advertised in that new way.
We’re looking at opportunities to do more videos. Longer videos, but also short snippets of one to two minutes. We want to post them on social media, on our website, or YouTube, just helping get the word out about things that you would have normally experienced during a campus trip. Since they won’t necessarily be able to do that as easily, we need to really up our game on our videos and our virtual experiences. One thing I noticed during the interview process for Millsaps was we didn’t have a virtual tour online. Many schools have a tour where it’s self-guided, and you can go on the website, and you can go in buildings, and you can hear from students. It’s a way for you to see before you even invest in visiting. Whether or not you think you’d be a good fit for the school. So, I’m investigating options for us to add a virtual tour to our website, and that would be another resource for our counselors to use with prospective students. They could direct students to that virtual tour, and they could also walk them through the virtual tour while doing zoom meetings or a teams meeting. They could personalize the virtual tour more by doing it in a virtual setting with them. We also have opportunities to connect students with faculty or coaches or whoever else they need to meet on campus before they make a decision. We could do that virtually as well. So, when a student’s signs up for a tour experience, we asked those questions: Do you want to meet with a faculty member? Do you want to meet with a coach? And we’ll make that happen during their virtual experience, too.
P&W: You sort of touched on this earlier, but international students are facing a bit of a hard time with how difficult it is to really travel to the states. What’s your role in the dilemma that’s facing international students?
So, it’s gotten a little bit better since last week. I don’t know if you heard, but last week there was an announcement that if you were an international student and you were doing your entire fall semester in an online format, that you wouldn’t be able to come back to the United States. That was a very scary piece of legislation.
But they have since rescinded that, so I think that gave us a big sigh of relief because we have a couple of international students that had contacted our office and said “We’re not planning on coming to the United States. Can we do virtual instruction?” And it all depends on their country. If they had all gone back to their country, many countries aren’t easily issuing visas for those students to come back to the United States at this point. We value international students on campus and the diversity they add to our community, so I think what we’ll do, for at least this year, is focus our international recruitment efforts on students who are already in the United States. There are a lot of international students that study at boarding schools or at schools in the United States. If they’re already here, as long their school isn’t going completely online – or even if their school is online, many of them are just staying here for the fall – and so my hope so that we can connect with some of those students who hopefully won’t have as many problems cause they’re already in the United States. That’s an opportunity there, but we also are working to do everything we can with our current international students to make sure they can continue their studies here at Millsaps and just do it in a remote fashion.
P&W: So, you’ve been mostly trying to focus on the current international students. I imagine it hasn’t been too difficult to recruit new international student if they’re in the states?
My understanding is that we only have one international student who’s committed to coming to Millsaps this year, and it’s because of COVID, because they’re having such a hard time getting over here, and we’re not the only school that’s seen such drastic reductions in new students. But that being said, we are doing everything we can to accommodate that student and our current international student body, and we’re going to continue to look for easy ways that we can get creative this year to recruit from the United States in a more concerted effort. There are quite a few international students already here to recruit from. We still have a fantastic partnership with Next Genius. I don’t know if you’ve heard about that.
It’s a group that we partner with to bring in students from India. We offer a full scholarship each year to a student from India through this program, so it’s really been a fantastic partnership for us. We’ve gotten quite a few students that are real contributors to Millsaps. We still plan on offering that scholarship this year. The competition is in the winter, so we’re not quite sure if that will still happen or not, at least in a face to face format. It’ll probably be in a virtual format. So instead of traveling to India we’ll probably do something virtual.
P&W: How are you addressing the concerns of returning students?
I don’t have a direct role in the efforts for the return to campus plan. That is more being led by Annie Mitchell in our office of communications and marketing, Demi Brown, and then there’s several others key members of that committee, basically. It’s like a task force, making sure that we’re prepared for the return on the campus. I will say that as a member of the executive staff, that our number one priority is the health and safety of our returning students, and the faculty and the staff. So, we’ve had meetings with representatives with UMMC, the medical center, and they’ve come and walked through our facilities and given us advice on how we should arrange the rooms to have an appropriately socially-distanced environment. They’ve given us advice on how we need to maintain cleanliness in our buildings. So, they’ve advised us on all of the protocols that we’re developing, and we’re following all of those best practices. I think there are going to be town halls scheduled for the future, so that will be a great opportunity for students that still have lingering concerns and questions to ask members of those groups those questions.
I think retention is definitely a concern. So, I think that’s the key: the more communication we can have with students to help relay their fears I think is really important, and those efforts are being made by Demi and the committee that’s working on all the returns to campus plans. My job is more how do I reach prospective students during this to ensure that we increase in new student enrollment for next year because it’s going to be more crucial than ever after a time like this when we possibly do see enrollment strip a little from students who don’t return to campus. So, I see it as my role being more crucial next year, that we’re continuing to reach students that would be a good fit for Millsaps. One thing that I’m thinking about as a priority to address is transfer students. Currently, we haven’t received as many transfer students in the last ten years as we did in the previous fifteen to twenty years ago. I’m looking into why that is and if we can increase our relationships with the community colleges in Mississippi and we can make the transfer process as seamless and smooth as possible. Transfer students have a lot to offer to a campus community. They come in with a level of maturity, having already been to college, and right now this entering class we have 13 transfer students coming in. I’d like to see that number double next year because there’s an opportunity for that.
P&W: What are your hopes with regards to enrollment? What do you hope Millsaps will look like in the (hopefully) near future when all of this is taken care of?
Well I think that you’d probably agree that the whole COVID situation has helped students and families see even more the value of having an in-person campus experience. I’ve heard from many students that attend both small liberal arts and larger state institutions, I’ve heard how much they miss being on campus and being in the classroom and being part of a community of people learning together. Being close to their faculty research opportunities, and even just being part of the community outside of the campus. Millsaps has a real history of being connected with the Jackson community and doing outreach and partnering with the Midtown community next to campus, having students interning at UMMC. I think now more than ever, students understand the value of what we bring to the table, so I think that’s how I frame recruitment for the next year. We’re seeing that there truly is value in the on-campus dynamic, and I think that that will help us have a renewed interest in a small campus community that’s supportive, that adds value to a student during their four years, and supports a student after they leave Millsaps.
That’s one key thing I love about Millsaps is that the alumni really do seem to be a strong group that will help you network throughout life. So, there’s a lot of things that we can talk about accolades-wise that maybe we haven’t… boast isn’t the right word. ‘Tooted our horn about’ enough. We have the Rhodes scholars, and we have Truman scholars, and we have Fulbright scholars, and in a small liberal arts college, that’s not a common thing to have such excellence on their campus. We’ve been recognized by Colleges That Change Lives, which goes with the whole concept of value-added through the Millsaps experience. What I see my role as is doing an effective job of communicating these messages to prospective students because I think that might be where the most opportunity is – that we haven’t shared the message effectively. We have the new VP for communications, Annie Mitchell, onboard, and she and I are going to be working really closely to make sure that we’re getting out this message to prospective students through digital advertising; through mailings; through what we post on our website and through social media. Our counseling team is really going to be focused on doing contact with students that’s very relationship-driven, and so they’re going to get to know prospective students. So that students going to get to know that “Annie is my counselor, and she’s who I need to go to if I need to be connected to a faculty member or I have questions about the application process”, because if we don’t build those relationships, another college is going to build them with a prospective student, and they may get the student when Millsaps was a better fit. So, our job is to find those great fit students and help convince them that Millsaps is the place that they need to be.