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Institutions slow to react to enrollment declines

SUNY Potsdam is one of the campuses in New York’s state university system. Its enrollment struggles are emblematic of higher education institutions at large. Potsdam, NY is 60 miles southeast of Canada’s capital city of Ottawa and 90 miles northwest of Burlington, VT. The closest major city in New York State is Syracuse, 125 miles to the southwest. It is definitely out of the way, and this academic year has been challenging, to say the least.

SUNY Potsdam started the school year with the announcement that the campus has a $9M structural deficit. With an enrollment of just 2,500 students, there is little chance that Potsdam can dig itself out of the hole that it has created for itself over the last decade or more. The New York State Legislature has increased funding to the SUNY system by more than $200M over the past two funding cycles, but Potsdam’s share of that funding is not enough to close its budget deficit.

According to Potsdam president Suzanne Smith, salaries at the campus absorb its entire income. After paying the staff, the school has no additional funding to support daily operations. The state legislature has restricted all SUNY campuses from raising tuition, so increasing revenues from students is not an option.

According to the administration, the campus enrollment has declined by 43% since 2010, but the size of the staff has remained the same. There is no option but to cut academic programs and the faculty that teach them. Until two weeks ago, no one knew which programs faced elimination and which faculty might be cut.

Before making these decisions, the school offered a buyout program for faculty and staff eligible for retirement. The school’s foundation funded that program, and 30 employees accepted the offer.

Enrollment gains through recruiting are unlikely

In a letter sent last fall to the faculty, union president Greg Gardner didn’t mince words. His blunt advice to the faculty? “Brace for impact.”

Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which accredits SUNY Potsdam, noted the school’s chronic financial position and has repeatedly asked for remediation plans. According to the union, the standard response consisted of new student recruiting and reductions in programs and staff headcounts. None of those actions ever materialized. Even with the planned cuts, Potsdam is still not close to its reducing expenses by $9M.

The finer point here is that universities and colleges throughout the United States are losing enrollment left and right. Certain “special case” universities (e.g., Harvard, Yale, MIT, the state flagships) will not experience enrollment declines. Students who plan to attend college will apply there in large numbers. But the overall trend of declining enrollment upends the notion that schools can easily add more students simply by recruiting. That hasn’t worked at any point in the last decade. Any school that plans to rely on rising enrollment either had better be a flagship university or have a highly detailed strategy that involves more than “recruiting.”

The only way in which a higher education institution can reliably increase student enrollment is by developing and delivering academic programs that return value to the alumni.

Community colleges make the mistake of focusing on the needs of local employers to the exclusion of the students. This strategy has cost them dearly. Today’s students hold higher education institutions accountable by asking, “What’s in it for me?”

If higher education institutions want to survive, they better come up with some very good answers – and fast.

Photo Credit: Thierry Ehrmann , via Flickr