Small col­leges strug­gle as en­roll­ments drop

Lay­offs, re­or­ga­ni­za­tions in some Md. schools as large uni­ver­si­ties re­port gains

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Carrie Wells

Many of Mary­land’s small­est col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties have seen steadily de­clin­ing en­roll­ment over the past five years, in some cases by dou­ble-digit percentages, strain­ing bud­gets and prompt­ing lay­offs.

The de­clines oc­curred even as over­all en­roll­ment in four-year in­sti­tu­tions in the state swelled, driven largely by big gains in on­line stu­dents at Univer­sity of Mary­land Univer­sity Col­lege. Na­tion­wide, en­roll­ment grew nearly1.2 per­cent be­tween 2010 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion.

Small schools around Bal­ti­more were par­tic­u­larly hard-hit. Cop­pin State Univer­sity’s en­roll­ment fell by 18 per­cent from about 3,800 stu­dents in the fall of 2010 to about 3,100 in the fall of 2015. The Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more, Notre Dame of Mary­land Univer­sity and St. John’s Col­lege in An­napo­lis also saw en­roll­ment de­clines and laid off staff in the last year as a re­sult.

Smaller col­leges can be highly de­pen­dent on tu­ition rev­enue, and even mi­nor drops in en­roll­ment can have a big im­pact, said Bar­mak Nas­sirian, di­rec­tor of fed­eral re­la­tions and pol­icy anal­y­sis at the Amer­i­can As­so­ci­a­tion of State Col­leges and Uni­ver­si­ties. Ev­ery col­lege has an ideal num­ber of stu­dents it needs to en­roll to cover its costs, he said. Too few stu­dents can leave a hole in the bud­get; too many stu­dents re­quires hir­ing more fac­ulty.

“The cost of a li­brary doesn’t re­ally

change, so you want to hit that num­ber as close as you can,” Nas­sirian said. “Larger in­sti­tu­tions tend to have a lot more ef­fi­ciency when it comes to fixed costs. Small ones are at a de­cided dis­ad­van­tage.”

Col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors say they’re grap­pling with a sea change in higher ed­u­ca­tion. Stu­dents and their fam­i­lies have be­come more cost-con­scious since the 2007-2009 re­ces­sion, when en­roll­ment boomed amid a weak job mar­ket. To­day’s stu­dents also de­mand more sup­port ser­vices and aca­demic pro­grams.

“A big ques­tion from fam­ily mem­bers is out­comes,” said Dale Bit­tinger, who over­sees un­der­grad­u­ate ad­mis­sions at the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Bal­ti­more County, where en­roll­ment grew by 7 per­cent over the past five years. “They ask, ‘Whenmy son or daugh­ter grad­u­ates, will they get a job, and what’s the value for the dol­lar?’ ”

Statewide, Cop­pin State saw the largest per­cent­age drop in en­roll­ment of any four-year col­lege be­tween 2010 and 2015, ac­cord­ing to data from the Mary­land Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion. McDaniel Col­lege dropped 17 per­cent to a lit­tle un­der 3,000 stu­dents, while Notre Dame, St. Mary’s Col­lege of Mary­land and St. John’s Col­lege also saw dou­ble-digit per­cent­age drops in en­roll­ment over the same five-year pe­riod.

Data for this fall’s en­roll­ment is not yet avail­able.

Larger schools such as UMBC and the Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity fared well in the same pe­riod, with en­roll­ment ris­ing 7 per­cent and 8 per­cent, re­spec­tively. En­roll­ment at the state’s flag­ship school, the Univer­sity of Mary­land, Col­lege Park, grew 1 per­cent.

A cou­ple of smaller uni­ver­si­ties, Mary­land In­sti­tute Col­lege of Art and Steven­son Univer­sity, bucked the trend and in­creased en­roll­ment by 5 per­cent and 6 per­cent, re­spec­tively.

Mount St. Mary’s Univer­sity in Em­mits­burg also saw its en­roll­ment grow by 7 per­cent, but ad­min­is­tra­tors said ear­lier this year that a scan­dal in­volv­ing a for­mer pres­i­dent’s con­tro­ver­sial com­ments re­sulted in sig­nif­i­cantly fewer fresh­men com­mit­ting to the school for this fall.

Although it’s not clear what im­pact it might have on col­lege en­roll­ments, the num­ber of stu­dents grad­u­at­ing from high schools in Mary­land de­clined by about 1 per­cent from 2010 to 2014, ac­cord­ing to state data.

Col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors cited var­i­ous rea­sons for the en­roll­ment de­clines. Of­fi­cials at McDaniel and at Goucher Col­lege, which saw en­roll­ment de­cline 7 per­cent over five years, said their un­der­grad­u­ate en­roll­ment has been steady but that they have seen de­clines in grad­u­ate stu­dents, par­tic­u­larly teach­ers seek­ing mas­ter’s de­grees, and are work­ing to add high-de­mand grad­u­ate pro­grams to at­tract new stu­dents.

Notre Dame’s en­roll­ment dropped by 12 per­cent from 2010 to 2015 to about 2,600 stu­dents, prompt­ing it to lay off 12 peo­ple and cut 14 va­cant po­si­tions in early Au­gust. Univer­sity of­fi­cials blamed some of the en­roll­ment de­cline on the ri­ot­ing in Bal­ti­more last year that fol­lowed the death of Fred­die Gray from an in­jury sus­tained in po­lice cus­tody.

In a sur­vey ob­tained by The Bal­ti­more Sun, how­ever, only one stu­dent who chose not to at­tend Notre Dame last year cited the un­rest as a rea­son, while an­other stu­dent cited “se­cu­rity.” The pri­mary rea­sons stu­dents gave were cost of at­ten­dance, dis­tance from home and the school not be­ing the right fit. Gre­gory P. FitzGer­ald, the univer­sity’s chief of staff, said prospec­tive stu­dents ex­pressed their con­cern about the un­rest by other means, such as in phone calls.

At Cop­pin State, Maria Thomp­son, the col­lege’s new pres­i­dent, has made in­creas­ing en­roll­ment her top pri­or­ity and hired a con­sul­tant to help.

James Brady, chair of the Univer­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land Board of Re­gents, which over­sees Cop­pin State and the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more, said of­fi­cials were work­ing to in­crease en­roll­ment and that he was con­fi­dent they could turn the tide.

“I’m also a re­al­ist to know that this a ter­rific chal­lenge, and Pres­i­dent Thomp­son rec­og­nizes that as well,” he said. “We know it’s not a walk in the park, to say the least.”

The Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more, which saw a 4 per­cent en­roll­ment de­cline over five years, laid off 14 em­ploy­ees and elim­i­nated 12 va­cant po­si­tions in May to help save $3.9 mil­lion. Univer­sity of­fi­cials said the school was suf­fer­ing from a na­tion­wide down­turn in the num­ber of law school stu­dents. First-year en­roll­ment in law schools be­tween 2010 and 2015 was off 29.4 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Bar As­so­ci­a­tion.

Dave Bo­bart, UB’s in­terim vice pres­i­dent for en­roll­ment man­age­ment, said that he ex­pects the trend to end soon and that the col­lege has added new law and crim­i­nal jus­tice pro­grams to com­pen­sate. He also said the school, which once only en­rolled up­per­class­men and still re­lies heav­ily on trans­fer stu­dents from com­mu­nity col­leges, has been af­fected by en­roll­ment de­clines at com­mu­nity col­leges.

Mary­land com­mu­nity col­leges lost 3,200 stu­dents, or 3.1 per­cent of the to­tal, in 2015, and 4,800 stu­dents — 4.5 per­cent — in 2014.

Syd­ney Comitz, chair of the stu­dent ad­vi­sory coun­cil to the Univer­sity Sys­tem of Mary­land Board of Re­gents, said stu­dents have got­ten savvier about their op­tions and want to make sure they’re get­ting a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion that is worth the cost of tu­ition.

“I be­lieve the eco­nomic re­ces­sion had peo­ple think­ing about col­lege af­ford­abil­ity in a more se­ri­ous way than ever be­fore,” said Comitz, a third-year law stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Bal­ti­more.

At St. John’s An­napo­lis cam­pus, en­roll­ment fell 15 per­cent over the five years to 457 stu­dents. Fac­ing an $11.5 mil­lion struc­tural deficit in the last fis­cal year, St. John’s Col­lege laid off seven em­ploy­ees. In June, St. John’s gave the pres­i­dent of its Santa Fe, N.M., cam­pus over­sight of the An­napo­lis cam­pus, in part to make it eas­ier to elim­i­nate du­plica­tive jobs be­tween the two lo­ca­tions.

Ben­jamin S. Baum, St. John’s di­rec­tor of ad­mis­sions, said he is tasked with keep­ing fresh­man en­roll­ment steady at around 150 stu­dents per year — a num­ber that had pre­vi­ously fluc­tu­ated. He said the col­lege ex­pects to hit or ex­ceed that num­ber this fall. “That … isn’t just a magic num­ber,” Baum said. “It’s the num­ber that’s op­ti­mal for hous­ing, the num­ber of fac­ulty we have, the ex­penses of run­ning the col­lege.”

Steven­son Univer­sity, a small pri­vate col­lege with a higher price tag than pub­lic schools, would pre­sum­ably be af­fected by the de­ci­sions of bud­get-con­scious stu­dents, but its 6 per­cent en­roll­ment in­crease be­tween 2010 and 2015 is part of a trend that has dou­bled the school’s en­roll­ment to nearly 4,200 since 2000.

The univer­sity has pitched it­self as ca­reer-ori­ented, and ad­mis­sions of­fi­cials of­ten talk with prospec­tive stu­dents and their fam­i­lies about the jobs they can ex­pect to get af­ter grad­u­a­tion. Kelly Farmer, as­sis­tant vice pres­i­dent of ad­mis­sions, said the col­lege also ex­panded its re­cruit­ment from just the East Coast to na­tion­wide.

“We know that col­lege is an in­vest­ment,” Farmer said. “We want to make sure that fam­i­lies know that’s an in­vest­ment that will pay off.”

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