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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

UWM 'Panther Tour Bus' Hits The Road In Effort To Shore Up Freshman Enrollment

UWM Assistant Director of Recruitment Mariana Sanabria
Emily Files
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WUWM
UWM Assistant Director of Recruitment Mariana Sanabria holds up one of the yard signs she will hand out to students who visit the "Panther Tour Bus" at Audubon High School.

Last fall, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee saw a 14% drop in freshman enrollment. The decline is similar to what many universities experienced during the pandemic.

UWM is trying to make sure it doesn’t happen again this fall. One new strategy the university is trying is called the Panther Tour Bus.

Admissions officers hit the road in Wisconsin and northern Illinois, visiting high schools to answer admitted students’ questions and to encourage them to enroll.

At a stop in late May at Audubon High School on Milwaukee's south side, UWM admissions staffers Mariana Sanabria and Christina Conroy set up a table with school swag.

"This time of the year is usually when we start to slow down finally and catch our breath," Sanabria says. But not this year. "We are full steam ahead until the start of classes this year."

The pandemic prevented admissions counselors from attending the usual college fairs and high school visits. UWM wasn't open for campus tours until March. Now, they’re trying to make up for lost time by connecting with students in-person.

"It’s hard because without having the opportunity to be in the schools and build that familiarity, it’s hard to gauge where they’re at," Sanabria says. "So whatever additional opportunities we have to be in front of them is what we’re going for here."

That’s where the Panther Tour Bus (which is actually a van) comes in. The idea is to go on a sort of road trip to high schools in Wisconsin and northern Illinois.

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Emily Files
Prospective UWM students gather at the Panther Tour Bus at Audubon High School.

The first student arrives at Audubon and at starts peppering Sanabria and Conroy with questions.

"We’ve been kind of struggling with scholarships and all that," he says.

Other students have questions about how to set up their UWM email account or the steps to officially enroll.

But the majority of the students who stop by the Panther Tour Bus are just here to pick up their “Future Panther” yard signs and free water bottle. Carmen Valencia is one of them.

"I got an email from them so I just like decided to come because it was closer to my house, just to see I guess," she says.

Valencia is graduating from Carmen Southeast High School and plans on attending UWM. She says it’s always been at the top of her list.

"I did apply to another couple schools, but I figured that it’s really affordable," Valencia says. "I have a couple friends who go there, and they like the flexibility and diversity of the school. And they have support for students as well, like Spanish-speaking people if they don’t speak English that well."

Checking in with students like Valencia to see if they have lingering questions is especially important right now, because the pandemic has created uncertainty about what UWM’s next freshman class will look like.

"There has been quite a bit of unknown for us in terms of, of all our applications, which students are going to ultimately attend UWM?" says UWM Associate Vice Chancellor of Enrollment Management Kay Eilers.

The pandemic pushed UWM to join the Common App, which allows students to apply to multiple schools at once. UWM also got rid of application fees and stopped requiring an ACT or SAT score. That opened the door for way more students to apply. Applications went up 40%, according to Eilers. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into an enrollment increase.

"We’ve just had this huge increase in volume and we know it’s not because there’s more college-going students out there, but the college-going students have just applied to more schools," Eilers says. "So it will be really interesting to see where we land. And we have a lot of factors we’re closely watching but nothing definitive until students show up in the fall and get started in their courses."

Eilers hopes outreach like the Panther Tour Bus will help shore up UWM’s enrollment. Over four days of stops between May 20 and June 4 from Brown County to Cook County, IL, the tour bus reached 65 students.

Eilers says so far, new student numbers look like they’re rebounding from 2020’s low.

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