By Doug Ward
Enrollment reports released last week hint at the challenges that colleges and universities will face in the coming decade.
Across the Kansas regents universities, enrollment fell by the equivalent of 540 full-time students, or 0.72 percent. Emporia State, Fort Hays State, Wichita State and the KU Medical Center all showed slight increases, but full-time equivalent enrollment fell at Pittsburg State (3.98 percent), Kansas State (3.09 percent), and the KU Lawrence and Edwards campuses (0.49 percent). Enrollment at community colleges fell 2.6 percent.
Those numbers reflect the regents’ shift to a metric that focuses on credit hours rather than a count of the number of students. Total undergraduate credit hours are divided by 15 and graduate credit hours by 12 to get the full-time equivalency metric. More than 60 percent of students at regents institutions enroll only part time, the regents said in a news release, and the full-time equivalency counts adjust for that. At KU’s Lawrence and Edwards campuses, 16.2 percent of students are part time. That up about 2.5 points since 2013 but still considerably lower than it was in the 1990s.
KU reported that the total number of students across its campuses grew by 63, to 28,510, although the regents’ full-time equivalency total was 24,246. KU’s growth in head count came from the medical center. On the Lawrence and Edwards campuses, the number of students declined by 76. And though the freshman class grew, diversity declined in all categories.
Without doubt, KU had several strong components in its report. The most impressive was that nearly 84 percent of 2017’s freshman class returned to the university this year. That’s an increase of 4 to 6 points from just a few years ago and the highest KU has ever recorded. That growth reflects many factors, including higher admission standards and efforts to improve teaching, advising and student outreach.
Retaining students will grow increasingly important in the coming years as U.S. birthrates decline. An analysis by Nathan Grawe of Carleton University suggests that attendance at regional four-year colleges and universities will drop by more than 15 percent by 2029. Fewer births means fewer potential students, something that could prove particularly troubling for universities in the Midwest and Northeast, where declines are expected to be the steepest.
Universities like KU rely increasingly on undergraduate tuition dollars to pay the bills, especially as states reduce funding for higher education, so a large decline in in the number of students would have significant budget consequences. Many universities have ratcheted up out-of-state recruiting and increased financial aid in hopes of attracting more students. Some have been forced to reduce out-of-state tuition rates to attract more students.
This all grows increasingly important as KU considers a budget model that would allocate departmental resources in part on the number of undergraduate credit hours. More students would mean more money. Fewer students would mean fewer departmental resources, putting ever more pressure on small departments that provide important perspectives on an ever-changing world but that are never likely to attract large numbers of students.
Long-term predictions are notoriously inaccurate, so there’s no guarantee that any single university will face an extreme drop in the number of students. You don’t have to look far, though, to see what might happen. Enrollment at Kansas State dropped by nearly 1,000 students last year, and its enrollment declined each year between 2015 and 2017. That forced a budget cut of $15 million.
To make up for declining numbers of undergraduates, many universities have developed new master’s programs, many of them online, to tap into a demand for new skills and new credentials. Between 2000 and 2015, the number of master’s degrees granted at U.S. institutions rose by more than 60 percent. They have also added online classes for undergraduates to allow more flexibility for students who often work more than 20 hours a week to pay their bills.
The vast majority of tuition dollars still come from undergraduates, and without a doubt, attracting even the same number of students will grow increasingly challenging in the coming decade. Universities can’t just play numbers games, though. Volumes of students and credit hours may pay the bills, but unless universities elevate the importance of high-quality teaching and learning, those numbers mean little. In an increasingly competitive environment, the quality of teaching matters immensely.
Neil deGrasse Tyson on professors’ communication problem
Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has made a career out of explaining science to the public, offered some strong criticism of higher education in a recent interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. He said that a misguided rewards systems discouraged professors from reaching out beyond a small group of like-minded colleagues.
“If communicating with the public were valued in the tenure process, they’d be better at it. This is an easy problem to solve. If 20 percent of the evaluation for tenure were based on how well you communicate with the public, that’s a game changer. All of a sudden universities open up, and people learn about what you’re doing there, whether it’s bird wings or paramecia.
“But in the end, universities don’t really care. Put that in big letters.”
Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.