Enrollment Declines and Trying to Make Lemonade—Part 2
by Silence Dogood

On August 16th, MnSCU reports showed a potential 18.4% decline in FYE enrollment at SCSU as compared to the final enrollment number for Fall 2012. The same data for our regional competitor Minnesota State University—Mankato showed a potential 11.2% decline. So in an apple to apple comparison, SCSU looked MUCH WORSE!

As of 4:30 a.m. on September 13, MnSCU reports showed that the FYE enrollment at SCSU is now down only 8.3%. This is ‘good news’ when compared to the number reported on August 16th. However, it gets much more depressing when Mankato today is listed as being down by only 0.9%. Both universities increased their enrollment by over 10% over the same time period. Unfortunately, whereas Mankato is going to be nearly flat in enrollment from last fall, SCSU is looking forward to a significant decline in enrollment.

In looking at enrollment, there are two different numbers to consider: Headcount and FYE (Full Year Equivalent). Headcount simply counts each different student who is enrolled. FYE enrollment is the total number of credits generated divided by 30 for undergraduate students and 20 for graduate students. Because part-time students are only taking one or two courses, headcount is always significantly larger than FYE numbers. Since part-time students can significantly inflate the enrollment numbers, budgets are based on FYE rather than headcount. So, if you want to make yourself look better, you talk about headcount. However, budgets are based on FYE so headcount is really just a ‘feel good’ number for administrators.

Looking more deeply at the data for SCSU, some disturbing trends become apparent. A total of 44% of the FYE enrollment at SCSU is in lower division courses (courses numbered 100 and 200 which are taken by students in their first two years). This in itself is not unusual. However, the lower division enrollment is down 11.5% from the final enrollment number for Fall 2012. This should be disturbing because anyone who understands enrollment trends knows that if the students are not enrolled as lower division students, the upper division enrollment is going to be lower in the following year. When compared with Mankato, their lower division drop in FYE is only 2.1%. Again, Mankato’s number is MUCH BETTER than the number at SCSU.

Fall graduate FYE enrollment at SCSU is similarly down 7.8%. Again, comparison with Mankato is disturbing because their graduate FYE enrollment is up 2.4%! MSU—Mankato is used for comparison because historically SCSU and Mankato are of a similar size and have similar histories.

At one time, SCSU bragged about being the second largest university in Minnesota and the ‘flagship’ university in MnSCU. Based on MnSCU Fall FYE data, Mankato has 6,671 FYE and SCSU has 5,836 FYE so we are behind by 835 FYE. Even if our enrollment increases to 6,366 FYE—the number that we had last fall, we will still be significantly behind Mankato. I’m sure that some will argue that being smaller or second largest is not too bad, but I’m sure that when we were on top we didn’t aspire to be second. Some people might call being happy in second place ‘spin’.

From Fall 2005 to Fall 2010 as shown in the Figure, the enrollment looks like the stock price for Apple rising with no end in sight. These were the good times.

If the data for fall enrollments at SCSU for Fall 2011 and Fall 2012 (as taken from SCSU’s own news releases) are added along with a projected decline of 5% for Fall 2013 (emphatically given by President Potter at the Meet and Confer on September 7, 2013) the Figure shown below is obtained.

President Potter came to SCSU in the summer of 2007, so it is hard to blame or give him much credit for the enrollment for F’07. It’s probably even hard to consider that President Potter had much influence over the enrollment trends for the next several years. Enrollment is normally like turning a big ship—it doesn’t happen on a dime. However, President Potter has been here six years so clearly the last three years have to be attributed to his administration. Even if the Fall enrollment at SCSU is only down 5% this fall, this follows declines of 5.94% for F’11 and 4.49% for F’12. The cumulative three-year drop is 15.4%! The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that many people are predicting that the enrollment may be down more than 5% and probably likely in the 7-8% range. If the enrollment is down 7-8%, the cumulative three-year drop will be in the range of 18%! Since budgets are based on enrollments plan for some significant cuts moving forward.

So getting back to making lemonade. The old adage, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade” has been reinterpreted in light of the significant enrollment declines because someone needs to take the blame if enrollments go down—and since Dr. Saffari was dismissed in the Fall of 2011 he is no longer here to blame. So, after the departure of Dr. Saffari, the administration has tried to turn around the decline, which is a big negative, by saying they planned for the decline because they are “right sizing” the university. Sounds like a rationalization to me since there is no written plan guiding the decline nor any new announcements regarding programmatic reductions. So the administrative spin doctors are hard at work. Unfortunately, it is going to take an awful lot of sugar to make the lemons produced by the declining enrollment at SCSU into drinkable lemonade.

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4 Responses to “Enrollment Declines by Silence Dogood, Part 2”

  • J. Ewing says:

    Seems to me their might be any number of mitigating factors affecting the enrollment numbers. The ending of the second baby boom, affecting all of our K-12 schools recently, is transferred to colleges. The economy being in the tank offers less opportunity to afford college, especially with no guaranteed “better job” available afterwards. And general growth statistics for the areas around the two schools may make one more geographically desirable than the other. Sure, the President SHOULD get the blame or the credit, but Obama has shown that it doesn’t have to be so.

  • Gary Gross says:

    Some of those things undoubtedly have some effect. Still, that doesn’t explain everything. SCSU will lose more students this year than all of the other universities combined. That says that there’s more to this than demographic trends or the economy.

  • Nick says:

    A major college football coach would get fired if he lost a lot of games, especially at a powerhouse such as the University of Michigan or the University of Alabama. Seems interesting that a college president wouldn’t be let go for huge drop in enrollment.

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