Press "Enter" to skip to content

OU offers free higher education survival lessons

Earlier this year, The Hechinger Report analyzed the struggles of Ohio University. OU is about the size of Grand Valley State University, and enrolls about 22,000 students each year. (This year, the fall enrollment was about 20,000.) OU offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in most of its academic programs. It also offers some doctoral programs. OU is an NCAA Division I school, and a member of the Mid-American Conference. And it has a few lessons to offer about higher education survival.

Like many midwestern educational institutions, Ohio University struggles with the long-term effects of state-level higher education defunding. To counter this, OU has used a two-pronged strategy to replace the “missing” state funds: increasing enrollment while also raising tuition.

The problem with this strategy is that raising tuition comes with consequences. One of those consequences is playing out right now: students don’t enroll when they can’t afford to. OU’s 2020 enrollment is down by 10%.

Higher education survival isn’t all that complicated

Ironically, one of OU’s emeritus economics professor is an expert in higher education finance. By his account, OU is losing students to places like Ohio State University for a few simple reasons.

  • Students want the highest quality education available.
  • When students can attend a larger or more prestigious school with higher quality academics, they will.

  • In the last 15 years, OU has spent time, effort and money on activities that had little or nothing to do with education.
  • Diverting resources to these “side projects” caused a slip in the school’s academic rankings, which prompted many would-be students to look elsewhere.

  • OU increased the size of its administration.
  • Between 2010 and 2019, OU increased the size of its administration by nearly 50%. This unnecessary increase took money away from academics and redirected it toward administrative costs.

  • The university spent more heavily on athletics.
  • Under the assumption that athletics would attract more students, OU invested in its athletic programs. Students don’t really want athletics; they want a quality education. When they can get a better quality education elsewhere, they’ll go there.

Every fiscal year since 2017, OU has supplemented its budget with money from its reserves. So unforeseen events like the pandemic – which further depress enrollment and destabilize state funding – don’t help. Over the summer, OU laid off nearly 350 employees, which included about 60 faculty members. Another 82 faculty members took buyouts, and the University has eliminated academic programs. The University eliminated 94 administrative positions. (Which means that its administration has grown only by 37% since 2010.)

The only calculation that matters (to the students) is the quality of the academics compared to the cost of attendance. When the quality of academics slips, the enrollment will drop.

The lessons OU can offer

WCC could take a few free lessons from OU’s troubles.

  • Students choose to attend based on Quality of Academics/Cost.
  • When quality drops or costs go up (or both), enrollment drops. The best ways to raise enrollment are to increase the quality of the academic programs, or decrease the cost of attendance. Or both.

  • Diverting money from academics to ANY OTHER THING decreases the quality of the academics.
  • See above.

  • Increasing the size of the administration increases the cost of attendance without increasing the quality of the academics or enrollment.
  • See above. (Students do not choose a school because its administration is fantastic.)

  • Students do not choose to attend a school based on athletics*.
  • *Unless they’re athletes on an athletic scholarship. Believing that athletics (or e-sports or any other extracurricular activity) is a “recruiting tool” that will vastly increase enrollment is foolish. Students who choose educational institutions primarily for athletics and/or extracurricular activities will not remain enrolled for long. So, why invest real money in gimmicks to attract temporary students when instead, you can invest real money in academics and attract serious students?

Students enroll in school because of the quality of the education they will get for the money they will spend. When the administration diminishes the quality of the education, or raises its cost, they’re borrowing trouble.

Chasing “other revenues,” blowing up the size and cost of the administration, building unnecessary buildings, investing in misguided “recruitment tools” and wasting money on pet projects all increase the cost of attendance without also increasing the quality of the academics. All of these strategies are losers that will produce a net decrease in enrollment.

Academic quality/cost. It’s really not that hard.

Photo Credit: Jason , via Flickr