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Telling the SSU story

New VP Ed Mills believes student experience is key to future enrollment success

Dr. Ed Mills knew he had a big challenge ahead of him when he arrived at Sonoma State. In fact, he was counting on it — and welcomed it.

Ed Mills
Dr. Ed Mills

Mills, SSU’s Vice President of Strategic Enrollment Management, joined the university in August 2023 after 16 years at Sacramento State University, where he served in multiple roles, most recently as Vice President of Student Affairs and Chief Enrollment Officer.

At Sonoma State, he is charged with helping reverse enrollment declines that have left the university with about one-third fewer students than it had as recently as 2019. Enrollment throughout the California State University system is down 6.5% over that same period, so other CSU campuses face the same overall challenge, but SSU’s situation is especially acute.

So what was the appeal?

Mills — an Iowa native whose career started at Penn State University and led him to Cleveland State University before he joined the CSU in Sacramento — said it was his understanding and appreciation of SSU, its campus, and its people that made the prospect of leading enrollment here attractive.

”Not too long after Mike (President Mike Lee) had been appointed interim president, he asked me to come over and work with Provost Moranski and (former Senior Associate Vice President for Strategic Enrollment) Dr. Elias Lopez to do an assessment of enrollment and really look at what was happening, why there were successive drops over multiple years and what we could possibly do to stop that and turn it around.

“So when Mike approached me after (Elias Lopez) decided to retire, I already knew what the opportunity was here. I also was very familiar with Mike’s leadership, having worked with him at Sacramento State. And I thought, you know, if I could come and help turn around that enrollment story for such an amazing campus and put everything that I’ve learned over 38 years in higher education into making this a success story for our students, for our faculty and the university … well, who can turn down that kind of challenge?”

Mills said he is optimistic about SSU’s enrollment future because “I understand where the drop came from. If you go back to how this has been a campus that serves all parts of California, it’s a destination campus for students. And during the pandemic, students stayed close to home. So if you were a campus in a large metropolitan center, you fared much better than a campus in a smaller, more rural community like we are in.

“The challenge is that now we have multiple years of junior high and high school students that honestly have never heard of Sonoma State. And if they have, they don’t know where it is. So we have to reintroduce Sonoma State to California, to the western United States, and to the international population.

”It’s really about telling the story of what students can expect, the opportunities that they’ll find here, and what a great place this is.”

“His knowledge and experience in enrollment clearly is a fundamental reason he’s so important to us now,” said Karen Moranski, SSU Provost, Vice President for Academic Affairs, and Chief Academic Officer. “His demeanor really works well with people of all backgrounds. He’s a team player but also a leader -- people want to work with him. And he wants to make sure that a student who gets here has a great experience in learning; we want more students to have that experience.”

“And now we’re seeing the beginning of a good turnaround. Hope is now turning into numbers.”
That turnaround is attributable to Mills’ experience and that of his team, but also to new tools and strategies.

“What’s exciting is that we get to tell our story in a whole new way,” Mills said. “Our student market is very different. They have very different sources of information. So it really gives us the opportunity to be cutting edge and to tell our story in ways that help students.”

—Jeff Keating

Read more from Insights / Spring 2024