How U.S. Colleges and Universities are Responding to Declining Enrollments
Published by: WCET | 7/28/2023
**Editors note: A previous version of this post included a section with references to a news release and two news articles, on the University System of New Hampshire and a previously proposed plan to combine with additional institutions. The state did not move forward with that plan and there are no related plans being discussed now. We regret that this incorrect information was included in our article and have republished this post with the section removed. Thank you.
Lindsey Downs, Editor, WCET Frontiers.
Welcome to the second post in our series on higher education enrollment shifts. In our first post, the WCET Steering Committee work group focusing on this area reviewed historical enrollment trends, changes in student markets, and what may be coming in the future. The work group joins us today to discuss the ways higher education institutions are responding to the shifts in enrollment.
Thank you to our authors today for sharing on this important topic.
Enjoy the read,
Lindsey Downs, WCET
While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the trend, declining enrollments have been negatively impacting institutional budgets for nearly a decade. For a deeper look into the reasons why college enrollments are declining, see our earlier post, College Enrollment: Cliffs, Shifts, and Lifts. Higher education institutions are responding to the ensuing financial instability in ways that are both predictable and creative. A surprising selection of colleges and universities are thriving despite the culling of institutions and programs happening around them. Below are some of the most common responses to declining enrollments.
Some schools have chosen to cut programs as a way to shore up finances. The majority of these programs are deemed low-enrollment and fall within undergraduate humanities: mostly religious studies, philosophy, English, creative writing, languages, history, fine arts, and classics. However, social sciences and natural sciences are not exempt from being cut. Several schools have slated the elimination of sociology, economics, political science, geography, mathematics, environmental studies, and geology. Outside of the liberal arts, programs in risk include business, journalism/communication, education, nursing, and family & consumer sciences. Graduate programs recommended for phasing out largely reflect their undergraduate counterparts; while certificate programs being cut often are tied to specific skills and careers such as health studies, criminal justice, gerontology, speech and communication disorders, and hospitality management.
Here is a short list of news reports about a selection of institutions that went through program cuts:
With payroll comprising the bulk of most institutional budgets, it is no surprise that many colleges and universities are looking to cut personnel to maintain financial solvency. Clark College in Washington is planning to eliminate positions in counseling, emergency management, and building services. According to the Tampa Bay Times, St. Leo University in Florida, “will close eight of its 14 education centers located in five states over the next six months, eliminate 111 faculty and staff positions, end three-degree programs and some course offerings, and discontinue six of its 23 NCAA Division II sports teams. The university said 27% of the faculty and staff positions were already vacant.” In December 2022, Catawba Valley Community College in North Carolina laid off 21 staff and six faculty members. In March 2023, Penn State leadership asked all departments to submit positions for elimination. More recently, in April 2023, the oldest HBCU in Georgia, Savannah State University, cut 23 positions and froze all open positions. The Connecticut State University System announced they would have to eliminate 650 faculty and staff positions if state funding for the system is approved as is. Other schools including Colorado University Denver, University System of Georgia, Millikin University, and Bemidji State University are also preparing for layoffs.
The majority of school closings are for-profit institutions, but nonprofits, rural colleges, and small liberal arts colleges are most at risk for closure.
The Washington Post reported in April on the decline of rural higher education, listing the following nonprofit universities and colleges that have closed or announced their closings in the last three years: including Chatfield College in Ohio, MacMurray College in Illinois, Nebraska Christian College, Marlboro College in Vermont, Holy Family College in Wisconsin, Judson College in Alabama, Ohio Valley University in West Virginia, Lincoln College in Illinois, Marymount California University, Cazenovia College in New York, Finlandia University in Michigan, and Presentation College in South Dakota.
Best Colleges has been tracking college closures since 2020. They listed 20 small public and private non-profit schools that closed or announced closures. In addition to the Washington Post list, the Best Colleges list includes St. John’s University on Staten Island, American University of Puerto Rico, Bloomfield College in New Jersey, Cardinal Stritch University in Wisconsin, Holy Names University in California, Quest College in Texas, San Francisco Art Institute, Wave Leadership College in Virginia, Vista College in Texas, Becker College in Massachusetts, Independence University in Utah, Judson College in Alabama, Holy Family College in Wisconsin, and Urbana University in Ohio.
On April 1, 2023, two small, liberal arts colleges in western Massachusetts, Williams, and Amherst, announced a merger. While the announcement was later revealed to be an April Fool’s joke, a merger between the schools was not unthinkable in the current climate. While schools merging makes sense financially, mergers are not popular with alumni who want their schools to maintain their particular identity, or administrators who don’t want to risk upsetting alumni or be remembered as the ones who fundamentally changed the institution. Despite the hesitation, there have been some notable mergers and system consolidations in the past decade.
In 2021, Delaware State University acquired Wesley College: a private liberal arts college in Dover, Delaware. Wesley College is now DSU’s downtown campus. DSU has grown its enrollments over the last five years and recently reported its largest enrollment: 6,200 students, which is close to its 7,500 goal by 2026.
Northeastern University added Mills College in Oakland, California to its Global University System in 2022. Mills College was a small, private institution for women that had been experiencing financial difficulties, and was considering transitioning to a research institute before the merger with Northeastern.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education created two regional institutions on July 1, 2022, by merging three universities in western Pennsylvania (California, Clarion, and Edinboro) to create Pennsylvania Western University (PennWest), and three universities in northeastern Pennsylvania (Bloomsburg, Lock Haven, and Mansfield) to create Commonwealth University.
Another merger in Pennsylvania involves a private Jesuit university, St. Joseph’s, and a private health sciences school, the University of the Sciences in 2022. St. Joseph’s acquired the University of the Sciences, located in West Philadelphia’s University City. The arrangement between the two schools dissolves the University of the Sciences and brings all of their programs, students, employees, and facilities under the St. Joseph’s University brand.
Connecticut’s twelve community colleges are being consolidated into a single institution, Connecticut State Community College (CT State). According to the institution’s merger webpage FAQs, “The main drivers for the consolidation are closing the opportunity gap, improving student success rates and reorganizing our community colleges into a financially sustainable position, such that it is well positioned to continue to serve students for many years to come.”
The story is not all gloom and doom, however. There are many examples of institutions being creative to save money and expand enrollments without making cuts or formally merging with other institutions. What follows are strategies employed by these institutions.
Otterbein University and Antioch University announced in 2022 a plan, to partner in providing graduate and adult education programs. Although the two institutions will share the costs and governance of these programs, they will retain institutional independence and branding.
Also in 2022, The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) unveiled the HBCU-MSI Course-Sharing Consortium, which allows these institutions to share online courses. Credit for these consortium courses will remain with the home institution. There are 24 participating institutions including Central State University in Ohio, Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, Heritage University on Yakama Indian Reservation in Washington, Southeast Arkansas College, Stillman College in Alabama, Texas Southern University, Tuskegee University in Alabama, University of the Virgin Islands, and Virginia State University.
Adrian University in rural Michigan is keeping students local with course sharing arrangements with multiple other institutions that offer courses and majors because Adrian does not.
Finally, the League for Innovation Online Course Sharing Consortium allows students at its member institutions to take online courses at other institutions, to support progress and completion without having to enroll in the partner institution or cede course credit at their home institution. Hundreds of community colleges are already members of the League and the goal of the non-profit is to expand course-sharing benefits across the United States and even to international institutions.
With online courses providing a cost-saving solution for institutions, some have chosen to expand their existing online offerings. Colorado’s Rural College Consortium allows students at the state’s seven community colleges to share programs and services.
The state is investing millions of dollars into supporting the consortium in building out online offerings and infrastructure. Boston University has had online course offerings for two decades, but recently decided to expand graduate and professional programs through a newly branded expansion called BU Virtual. St. Cloud State University in Minnesota is also expanding graduate degree programs online in the College of Education and Learning Design to reach working professionals. In Missouri, Delta College is adding 17 new programs at the associates and certificate level and William Woods University announced the establishment of William Woods Global to “expand higher ed opportunities for working adults.”
Some schools have found success doubling down on gaining new enrollments of high school graduates, and even current high school students. Dual enrollment programs allow high school students to satisfy both high school graduation requirements and collegiate general education requirements while still in high school. These programs set up a direct pathway for high school students to enroll in a college or university they already have a relationship with. Test-optional admission existed before the COVID-19 pandemic, but in 2021, hundreds of institutions suspended the SAT and ACT requirement for applicants. Those schools that have retained test-optional admissions, are finding that they are getting a more diverse applicant pool of students. Early admission is a strategy used by schools hoping to lock in student enrollment months ahead of the spring scramble to make a viable class. A newer strategy is direct admission, which bypasses the application process altogether. According to reporting by The Washington Times, “The process allows officials to review the electronic profiles of high school students and reach out to ideal matches with scholarship offers rather than wait for applications.”Finally, some schools are leaning into their institutional identity and recruiting students with a similar identity. Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, has begun actively recruiting students outside of the continental U.S., but who share an African diaspora heritage.
In 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided $14 billion to U.S. colleges and universities through the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF). That funding helped higher education institutions to keep their doors open during the COVID-19 lockdown but will be suspended in May 2023.
To offset the rise of higher education deserts, the United States Department of Agriculture has been loaning tens of millions of dollars to rural colleges and universities. Of the six institutions that verified USDA loans, five are private and religiously affiliated: Thiel College in Pennsylvania, Carson-Newman University in Tennessee, Muskingum University in Ohio, Dordt University in Iowa, and Iowa Wesleyan University.
Hampshire College was on the verge of closing without a viable merger option back in 2019 until alumni kicked in $33 million to save the school. An article in Inside Higher Ed reported that Hampshire College has offered admission and matching tuition to students at Florida’s New College, who are considering transferring due to state political interference in the school’s administration. This kind of poaching, once considered unethical by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, is now fair game under the organization’s revised Code of Ethics and Professional Practices.
A month later, Higher Ed Dive reported that the provost of Binghamton University, Donald Hall, published an op-ed in the Miami Herald in response to Florida’s governor’s campaign to strip trans persons of healthcare and other human rights, as well as quashing DEI initiatives at Florida colleges.
“Send us your woke, your trans,” read the headline of Donald Hall’s op-ed in the Miami Herald, in which he proclaimed his college, the public Binghamton University, would aggressively recruit and poach Florida students and faculty amid DeSantis’ campaign to wipe out diversity programs and restrict faculty tenure on state campuses (Bauer-Wolf, 2023).
Many women’s colleges have offered admission to transgender students for a decade or more, but the new wave of anti-trans legislation has prompted these schools to reaffirm their role as a safe haven. Activist and researcher Megan Nanny, Ph.D., tracks the admissions policies of gender-selective colleges on her website, Trans @ HWCs. According to Nanny’s research, most Historically Women’s Colleges (HWCs) admit trans women while also admitting non-binary students who “consistently live and identify as women.”
It is no surprise that prestige schools with low acceptance rates and high endowments are doing just fine during the downturn in enrollments. But in a surprising twist to this story, there are several non-elite schools that are thriving despite the national trend in declining enrollments.
Non-selective, public flagship institutions have experienced record-high enrollments in recent years. According to the Urban Institute, the 50 state flagships increased their enrollment by 24% between 2010 and 2018. Most of that growth was in the South. Five of the top ten fastest-growing universities include the University of Alabama, the University of Mississippi, the University of Arkansas, West Virginia University, and the University of South Carolina. Two fast-growing flagships are located in the northeast: the University of Connecticut and the University of Rhode Island. Rounding out the top ten are the University of California, Berkeley, the University of South Dakota, and the University of Nevada, Reno. The rise in enrollments can be attributed to several factors including affordability, high acceptance rates, and an expansion in the number of out-of-state students. According to a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the boom for flagship institutions is coming at the cost of enrollment declines at state regional institutions. IPEDS data indicate that “In 28 states, enrollment rose at flagships while it dropped at regionals between 2010 and 2021.”
Schools leaning into their identity or their unique approach to education are also thriving. Enrollment in trade profession programs is rising despite the general trend of catastrophic declines in enrollment at community colleges.
According to reporting by National Public Radio, “Across the country, associate’s degree programs in fields like HVAC and automotive repair have seen enrollment numbers swell.”
A recent edition of the Hechinger Report echoed this finding: “Mechanic and repair trade programs saw an enrollment increase of 11.5 percent from spring 2021 to 2022, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Enrollment in construction trades courses increased by 19.3 percent, while culinary program enrollment increased 12.7 percent, according to the Clearinghouse.” Interviews with students in these programs reveal that they are choosing them over the more traditional 4-year degree because they are less expensive, they offer a clear path to a career, and they can begin applying new skills immediately rather than waiting until after graduation.
When taken as an aggregate group, enrollments at religiously-affiliated schools have dropped by 9 percent between 2019 and 2020. However, enrollments in that same period increased by over 12 percent at evangelical colleges. A 2017 article in U.S. News & World Report attributed the enrollment growth of large, Christian colleges to low tuition and a broader selection of courses than at smaller schools.
According to the National Catholic Register, smaller Catholic schools have been experiencing enrollment growth despite the overall decline in enrollments at Roman Catholic schools. Academic leaders at these schools attribute the growth to their schools offering in-person classes during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as students craving a faith-affirming community and curriculum during times of uncertainty. The Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group for Catholic education, recognizes the schools mentioned in the National Catholic Register article as being committed to “a faithful Catholic education” as opposed to Catholic colleges “compromised by ideology, infidelity, and scandal.”
A final category of schools with healthy enrollments according to a Campus Reform report is “Liberal arts institutions that emphasize great texts of the Western tradition and classical education.” These institutions include Hillsdale College in Michigan, Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Liberty University in Virginia, and Thomas Aquinas College in New York. These are all schools that cross-categorize with the evangelical and conservative Catholic schools listed above. What makes this list different is the emphasis on a curriculum grounded in traditional education, and a clear avoidance of programs or courses that might be regarded as promoting diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice.
Bauer-Wolf, J. (2023). Ripe for poaching: Will DeSantis’ higher ed policies drive out Florida faculty?Higher Ed Dive. https://www.highereddive.com/news/ripe-for-poaching-will-desantis-higher-ed-policies-drive-out-florida-facu/647055/