Conversations with higher education leaders about online learning, the future, and the pandemic’s lasting impact on higher education.

An interview with: Robert Springall, Assistant Vice President for Undergraduate Education and Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Penn State University

Robert Springall describes himself modestly as “Director of Admissions”. He oversees undergraduate admission at 21 campuses, including the flagship University Park Campus of the Pennsylvania State University System, 19 regional campuses throughout Pennsylvania, and he collaborates closely with a special admissions team for Penn State’s World Campus (online). All told, Penn State has over 70,000 undergraduate students, and Rob and his different teams have probably admitted just about all of them – from traditional freshman, to incoming transfer students, to returning adults. Prior, he had various admission leadership roles at large state universities like the University of Central Florida and smaller regional institutions like Bucknell University and Muhlenberg College. He has also served on the Board of the Common Application, and he is an avid contributor to the field of enrollment management and admissions.

Dr. George Rohde interviewed Robert as we approached Fall of 2022. Here are edited excerpts of his expertise, with a focus on the Penn State University System.

Rohde: You have seen college enrollment through so many different lenses. What is the biggest challenge you are facing right now?

Robert Springall: By far, the biggest challenge we are facing in Pennsylvania is keeping up with the changing demographics. By that, I mean that Pennsylvania college enrollment is down throughout the state by 25% in the last decade or so. At Penn State, we are competing for a shrinking base of students, and it is a big challenge, particularly for our regional campuses.

Rohde: How has the enrollment environment shifted with the pandemic?

Robert Springall: I have to say that we, as a system, have made a commitment to student success. We are seeing more and more students struggling with mental health issues. From childcare to financial pressures, to simply finding joy, we are seeing students struggle more, and the pandemic really accelerated these trends. Two decades ago, we may have said if we lose some of these students, we will just get new students to fill the gap. Now though, we are trying to build the support systems to reinforce the value of a degree, and help students see their way through some of these issues. As an institution, we are much more focused on how to foster student success, and finding the ways as a university system that we can nurture and develop these struggling students.

Rohde: How has this approach to student success changed over time?

Robert Springall: There are two limiting factors we have. The first is capacity – how many business majors, or engineers, or other majors we can accommodate given the space available. This mostly comes into play at the University Park campus. The second constraint is prior academic performance, and does it line up with prior students that were academically successful at Penn State. Becoming test optional and the pandemic years really affected the measurement scale [for academic performance], but I would also say that, as I alluded to earlier, two decades ago, Penn State would have said to the students who met those constraints, “well, maybe Penn State isn’t for you”. Now, if a student meets our selective criteria upon admission, we want that student at Penn State, and we want to do everything possible to reinforce this. That means a student that maybe two decades ago would have dropped out and started working a manufacturing job (which were plentiful at the time), would now be actively serviced by the university team to help overcome any doubts, reinforce the value of a degree, and actively sort through the different academic, or financial, or personal issues that may be barriers to graduation.

Rohde: That is a refreshing approach, and great to hear the commitment Penn State has to student success. But, what about reengaging the students for whom the university support wasn’t enough, and they stopped out?

Robert Springall: At Penn State, we have a few different initiatives going on with reengagement. One, we are actively looking at course registration for the next semester, and we are reaching out to students that are not registered for classes by a certain timeframe. The other is examining students that have relatively small financial balances of say $500, and we are working actively to help students handle these balances. For some, it is just a reminder, and they forgot to pay it. A phone call or an email usually solves it. For others though, $500 can be the difference between re-enrolling for the next semester or stopping their coursework. For this latter group, we have added additional funding to help students overcome this, as they register for the next set of courses. So far, these initiatives have been quite successful.         

Rohde: As you look forward, what trends do you think will emerge in enrollment?

Robert Springall:  Well, here is where we are at Penn State. We are seeing a slight increase in enrollment at the flagship campus, and a slight decrease in enrollment at the regional campuses. Underlying some of the declines in enrollment, I believe, is the perception of the value of a college degree versus just entering the workforce once a student graduates high school. We can reinforce that value of a college degree when we can gather people together – on campus, at events, in the community. That togetherness really allows Penn State to shine. So, you can imagine, we are trying to do that any way we can. Especially when the ability to gather during the pandemic was so severely constrained. I think universities will do well in the next cycle or two when they emphasize the value of a degree, and the enhanced value of the degree with in-person events and activities.

Rohde: Finally, what is your take on hybrid courses? How do they enhance the underlying value of a degree?

Robert Springall: I can tell you from my own experience, I sure wish hybrid options existed when I was earning my degree. But, at Penn State, most of our students are really opting for in-person courses. And there is a big resistance to taking online courses. I think these students may be a little shell-shocked from the last couple years. This aligns overall with what I said earlier, that at Penn State we are focused on bringing students together in person. But because students lead busy lives, once we are a few years out from the pandemic, I think hybrid courses will be an important part of the way degree programs are delivered, so long as the student has the optionality to elect in-person or online as needed.

Rohde: Thank you for sharing your expertise. I appreciate your time, and I look forward to sharing your comments with our readers.