By Doug Ward
The latest enrollment report for universities in the Kansas regents system (down 1.5%) seems worth little more than a shrug. Longer term, though, the higher education trends in Kansas will require considerable attention – and action.
Enrollment at the six regents universities has fallen 13.5%, or 10,100 students, since peaking in 2011. That average masks even bigger declines at individual universities: Pittsburg State, down 28.4% since 2011; K-State, down, 21.9%; Emporia State, down 19.7%.
Those make KU’s decline of 11.4% during that period look small, especially with 2022 enrollment basically unchanged since last year and with an 8.2% increase in the number of freshmen this year. The percentage of out-of-state students increased, as well, and the university will no doubt continue to rely on out-of-state students, considering that the rate of Kansas high school students going to in-state public colleges has dropped 10 percentage points, to 44.8%, since 2015.
I’ve written quite a bit about the persistent enrollment challenges in Kansas and around the country. It’s a daunting topic that will require strategic thinking at every level of the university. (Recent cuts at Emporia State offer a glimpse at just how painful this could become.) The rethinking of how we approach higher education must include classes, an area where many instructors have made great improvements but where KU still has considerable work to do in adopting teaching practices that promote student success. It must also include the many structural barriers that Michael Dennin, vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California, Irvine, spoke about at this year’s Teaching Summit. Those include things like curricula that are difficult for students to navigate and that make assumptions about student capabilities; demands on faculty time; inflexibility in classes and curricula; and a system that provides few incentives for cooperation.
It is through that lens of teaching that I look at some of the areas that stand out in this fall’s enrollment figures.
Women and men
At regents universities, women account for 56% of the overall student population, up about 3 percentage points over five years. Men now make up only 43.8% of the overall student population, down about 3 percentage points over that same period.
KU has a larger percentage of men (46.7%), but that may be the lowest percentage in the university’s history. I can’t say that with certainty, but it is the lowest since at least 1965, the first year for which Analytics, Institutional Research, and Effectiveness provides data.
In news reports from as far back as 1930, universities in Kansas and Missouri reported that their students were primarily men. In October 1960, for instance, The Kansas City Star reported that men outnumbered women 2 to 1 or 3 to 1 on most college campuses in Kansas and Missouri.
In terms of headcount, this year’s group of 11,146 men is the smallest since 1973, the last year the United States had a military draft. Overall headcount enrollment was 18,683 that year, 5,000 fewer than today’s, and men still accounted for 59.1% of students in 1973. Women at KU outnumbered men for the first time in 1988. Their numbers peaked in the early 2000s, but their percentage of total enrollment has grown each year since 2015. They now make up 53.2% of students at KU. That seems to be the highest ever.
The changes at KU have also followed national trends. Young women are more likely to graduate from high school on time and are substantially more likely to earn at least a bachelor’s degree (41% vs. 32% among those age 25 to 34), according to the Brookings Institution. Those numbers vary widely by state, though, as the Brookings table below shows.
Those same differences can be seen in graduate degrees. Since the early 2000s, women have earned about 60% of master’s degrees nationwide, and since 2005-06, more women than men have earned doctorates each year. The most recent totals from the National Center for Education Statistics show that women earn about 54% of Ph.D.s.
KU rightfully boasted about all-time highs for four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates. The university’s year-over-year retention rate of 84.7% is virtually unchanged from a year ago. That’s also good news.
The not-so-good news is that 1 of every 5 students leaves the university after three semesters, and 1 of every 4 students leaves after two years.
And though the four-year graduation rate has increased nearly 20 points since 2007, it is still a paltry 55%. Over five years, 66.1% of students graduate. That’s a 10-point gain since 2007, but a third of students fail to earn a degree after five or six years. That six-year rate is lower than the average among full-time students at U.S. universities (67.4%) and among students at four-year public institutions (72%).
The number of graduate students at KU has been declining steadily since 1991. At that peak, KU had 7,233 graduate students, according to statistics provided by AIRE. This fall, it has 5,166, a decline of 28.6% since 1991.
That is the smallest number of graduate students the university has had since 1974. This fall’s graduate cohort also makes up the smallest percentage of the overall student population (21.6%) since 1970 (20.2%). Declining numbers of undergraduates nationwide means that the pool of potential graduate students has also been shrinking.
KU’s declines in graduate enrollment run counter to nationwide trends over the last 10, 20 and 30 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Since 1991, graduate enrollment has increased 21% at public universities and 58% at all U.S. universities.
Not surprisingly, the decline in graduate enrollment at KU has meant fewer graduate teaching assistants. The number of GTAs has fallen nearly 18% since 2014, from 1,127 to 927.
The number of undergraduates taking online or hybrid online courses declined 14.7% this fall compared with Fall 2021. That is the second consecutive yearly decline since online and hybrid enrollment peaked during the pandemic-riddled Fall 2020 term.
Even so, online and hybrid online enrollment among undergraduates this fall was 22% higher than it was in Fall 2019, before the pandemic began. Those students are also taking more online credit hours (39% more than they did in Fall 2019). Those increases are no doubt even higher because of a change in the way KU accounted for online and online hybrid hours. I won’t go into those details, but a footnote on an AIRE-generated table explains the change.
Graduate enrollment in online courses shows a more troubling trend. If we omit the pandemic-inflated figures of 2020 and 2021, the number of students enrolled in graduate and professional courses online has increased 4.2% since Fall 2017, but the number of credit hours has declined nearly 15%.
In other words, there are slightly more online graduate students, but those students are taking fewer classes. The students looking for graduate programs online have also become more choosy, according to the educational consulting organization EAB. Those students often spend months or even years combing through university websites and looking for programs that provide the skills they want but that also waive admissions fees, overlook sometimes spotty undergraduate records, and allow admission without the GRE or other admissions tests.
Shaping the future
Those are just a few of the enrollment trends shaping KU and other universities, and the future will require both cultural and digital change, as John O’Brien argues in Educause.
Universities (KU included) are trying many new approaches as they adapt to shrinking numbers of students and changes among students. Those include more non-credit courses, certificate programs, stackable degrees, and micro-credentials. Some are creating partnerships with area businesses as students focus more urgently on skills they can use in jobs. Others are looking at ways to help students gain credentials in shorter time spans.
At CTE, our programs have helped departments define their curricula in terms of tangible skills, identify ways of making existing courses more appealing to students, create more cohesive curricula, clarify paths to degrees, and connect with more alumni. They have also helped faculty adapt their teaching to a more diverse student body, find ways of drawing on individual differences as a strength rather than a weakness, reinvigorate classes, and hone their teaching.
In all these programs, we have helped build a community that shares ideas and embraces innovation. That community will only grow more important as we navigate changes in enrollment, society, and expectations, and find a meaningful path to the future.
Doug Ward is associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting. You can also follow CTE @KU_CTE.