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Dynamic Chiropractic – December 16, 2010, Vol. 28, Issue 26

Increasing Student Enrollment: Getting Past Institutional Fears

By Guy Riekeman, DC, President, Life University

There is a cross-institutional effort afoot in our profession right now to find out why the pool of future chiropractors has remained frozen at 10,000 students in the United States for more than a decade, and to see what we can do to thaw it out and raise the water line for everyone.

I'm heartened to see representatives from the various colleges addressing this issue of mutual concern together.

However, I must admit that I'm also afraid our respective institutional fears will keep us from seeing the effort through in a big way and getting as much out of it as possible. It will require sharing information candidly and investing in vehicles that draw more students into chiropractic, not simply to one institution. It will take guts and trust in the strength of the unique mission of each school to attract those students who will best fit and thrive there.

This is my commitment that Life University will work openly with the Association of Chiropractic Colleges' (ACC) new Enrollment Task Force and do our very best to support efforts to grow the entire inquiry pool. We trust that the students who are best suited to our environment will connect with us, just as those best suited to another school will be attracted to them. The most important thing for the profession is to get more students coming in to the top of the funnel.

Taking It by the Numbers

We thought we had finally arrived at student recruitment Nirvana back in the late 1980s as enrollments climbed steadily, reaching 15,000 students in 1997. But just three years later, only 10,000 students were enrolled in the nation's chiropractic colleges. Today, despite large enrollment swings at specific institutions and even the addition of two new campuses to the mix, the number is about the same.

When enrollments were rising, we liked to think it was due to growing public acceptance of chiropractic. It probably had a lot more to do with demographics. The college-bound population was growing quickly through the '80s and our chiropractic colleges simply had more capacity to accommodate growing student numbers than did many other health care professions. As soon as the boomlet was over, so was our growth.

Another number our profession seems a bit stuck on is 12 percent: the most often reported figure for the number of people who visit a chiropractor in a 12-month period (although there is some limited data that suggests the number may be far higher). Some point to that number and say it shows just how many more chiropractors we need to care for the rest of the population. Others regard it as evidence that we have far too many chiropractors already.

I look at 12 percent and say the problem is not that we aren't seeing enough of the population; it's why they come. If they see us for seven visits every five years for musculoskeletal flare-ups, that may not be enough of the population to sustain our profession. But if we educated even three-quarters of those people to understand the long-term value of chiropractic, our offices and colleges would be full. Practice statistics show that as many as 74 percent of patients who receive chiropractic health care education stay for preventive/wellness care after symptoms are alleviated.

Frozen by Fear

When Life University kicked off its Power of One tour a few years ago, our primary purpose was to build the inquiry pool for the profession. I traveled from city to city reaching out to alumni from all the colleges and encouraging them to bring prospective students to learn more about chiropractic. We didn't talk in the public forums about Life University; we talked about chiropractic. But some folks were so afraid of losing a prospective student they put up barriers to working together.

I remember speaking in one location with a chiropractic college very nearby. There were 30 prospective students in the room and I encouraged them to become chiropractors, and recommended that they check out the school right in their area. Still, I heard from college administrators and alumni who were upset by my presence. Fear overrides our ability to work together to improve the situation for everyone.

I consistently invite other college presidents and administrators to visit Life University to see what we're doing and if anything from our campus might effectively be applied to theirs, and vice-versa. I've only had one peer take me up on that offer. I shared all the details about our LifeForce 1000 program and he witnessed firsthand how we engage DCs and prepare them to help us recruit students.

A small handful of our colleges have recently signed onto a Chiropractic Centralized Application Service brought to us by the ACC executive director. Every other health care profession offers a similar service to prospective students so they can complete one application and send it to as many participating schools as they'd like. So far, only Life University, Life West College of Chiropractic, Sherman College of Chiropractic, Texas Chiropractic College and the University of Bridgeport College of Chiropractic have signed on.

As long as the inquiry pool remains stagnant, an increase in enrollment at your school means a decrease at mine. Doesn't it make more sense to combine efforts at really promoting chiropractic as a profession and grow the pool for everyone?

Along this vein, I applaud the generosity and commitment of Kent Greenawalt, president of Foot Levelers, Inc., and Charlie DuBois, president of Standard Process, who together have earmarked $100,000 for a market study of the profession. At the ACC Presidents' Summer Retreat, a task force with individuals from three diverse institutions (Bill Meeker, DC, president of Palmer Chiropractic College West, Mark Zeigler, DC, president of Northwestern Health Sciences University, and Brian McAulay, DC, PhD, executive vice president and provost of Life University) developed a Scope of Work document to guide the effort.

Moving Forward With Guts

As best-selling author, speaker and marketing guru Seth Godin says, the riskiest thing you can do in today's hyper-fast and interconnected environment is play it safe. If you want people to get excited about what you're offering, you have to offer something remarkable for them to notice and talk about. He calls it the purple cow phenomenon; no one notices the black and white ones, but everyone would talk about a purple cow. We already have a unique message in chiropractic (our "purple cow"); we just have to get out there on a limb with it. Godin argues that strongly communicating uniqueness is the difference between being remarkable and being invisible.

In his 2008 best seller, Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, Godin also asserts that even a fairly small group of people (as few as 1,000) who are connected to each other and committed to an idea can spread that idea throughout the population. That's viral marketing in a nutshell. Let's get our chiropractic "tribe" behind the ACC's effort with open minds and an open sharing of effective practices. If we can let go of our fear of losing something, we might find there's quite a bit to be gained.

Dr. Guy F. Riekeman, president of Life University in Marietta, Ga., has held leadership positions in chiropractic education essentially since his graduation from Palmer College of Chiropractic in 1972. He was appointed vice president of Sherman College in 1975 and has served as president of all three Palmer campuses and as chancellor of the Palmer Chiropractic University System. In 2006, he was elected to the board of directors of the Council on Chiropractic Education.

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