Demographics Be Damned!
Declines Can Happen All by Themselves
by Silence Dogood

Who says demographics project declining higher education enrollments? According to an article in the New York Post

“With students heading to college in record numbers, local institutions are constructing everything from new dormitories to academic buildings, hoping to attract the best and brightest students and professors.”

The article further cites:

“Since 2003, the City University of New York’s student population has increased by nearly 50 percent, requiring an expansion.”

Clearly, this is not what has happened at SCSU. The website of the Office of Strategy, Planning & Effectiveness shows the FYE enrollment from FY2000 through FY2014.

The figure shows that, with a small decline in enrollment from FY04 through FY06, the overall enrollment increased by 6.3% from 2003 to 2010. Then things changed significantly. From FY2010 to FY2014, enrollment decreased 18.0%. Over the time period from 2003 through 2014, while the City College’s enrollment increased 50%, SCSU’s enrollment decreased 12.8%. The real question is was the decrease in enrollment avoidable?

According to the National Center for Education Statistics annual report The Condition of Education

“While total enrollment increased overall between 1990 and 2012, enrollment in 2012 was nearly 2 percent lower than in 2010.”

If SCSU followed the national trend you might have expected a decline of 2% between 2010 and 2012. Unfortunately for SCSU, enrollment declined 7.7%, which is nearly four times the national decline.

“The Condition of Education” report began with this statement:

Clearly, enrollment in higher education is set for an increase over the next ten years. The following figure shows the actual and projected enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions by level of institution: Fall 1990-2023.

From the graph, it looks like postsecondary undergraduate enrollment in 4-year schools will rise from 10.6 million in 2012 to 12.0 million in 2023, which corresponds to a growth of 13%. Dividing by 10 projects that this enrollment increase averages 1.3% per year. While this is certainly not a large rate of growth, it is not a decline. It certainly appears that SCSU’s substantial enrollment drop is due more to an inability to compete and secure market share rather than the impact of demographics.

The biggest question going forward for SCSU is this: can it reverse its fortunes? The expensive rebranding from a couple of years ago certainly didn’t work to stem the decrease in enrollment, but perhaps the mantra “Think, Do, Make a Difference” can be the guide for planning for change. Optimistically, many people at SCSU remain hopeful that a turnaround can happen. However, many “think” the current leadership at SCSU is not up to the challenge. In fact, the results of the Great Place to Work Survey clearly show a lack of confidence in the Potter Administration to “Do” anything that will “Make a Difference”. An overwhelming majority of faculty, staff, and administration that participated in the survey (634 of 1,582 of those invited responded—39% response rate), distrust President Potter and his administration. Any hope for a turnaround lies in a different kind of change. If those who are to do the thinking and doing to make a difference at SCSU remain uninspired because of failed leadership, it is time for a change in the leaders.

Looking 185 miles Northwest up Interstate 94, a new university president is making a difference. Just three months into her presidency, Anne Blackhurst led a fundraising campaign that raised $1,200,000, the largest amount of funds raised in a single event in Minnesota Stat University, Moorhead’s history. Through her efforts, the faculty, staff and students have been energized. The first steps turning around MSU, Moorhead have begun and the university with the second largest enrollment decline since 2010 is moving quickly. Given Blackhust’s contagious enthusiasm, it’s hard not to believe their turnaround is under way!

At SCSU, it seems that the administration has been asleep. Until recently, they even denied that a decline was occurring! Now that the decline has led to a projected $9,542,000 deficit for FY15, which was only documented after 25% of the fiscal year had already passed, the administration is now awake and struggling to find ways to close the deficit. SCSU is faced with trying to close a deficit equal to 6.3% of its $151,734,000 general fund budget. Given that a large percentage (78%) of the budget is due to personnel costs, there isn’t any doubt that the solution will result in fewer employees at SCSU. Unfortunately, during reorganization in 2010, $14,000,000 was eliminated from the budget and MANY positions were eliminated. Any relatively painless reductions have already been made. It is going to be a very painful process to reduce spending $9,542,000 and bring the budget back into balance.

One single decision made by President Potter, his contract with the Wedum Foundation for the Coborn’s Plaza Apartments, has cost SCSU $7,400,000 during the era of declining enrollment. Last spring, SCSU had already lost $6,400,000 on the first four years of operation of Coborn’s Plaza Apartments. Despite that, during a February 20th interview with the SCTimes editorial board, Potter declared Coborn’s Plaza a “success.” Losing $6,400,000 isn’t a ‘success’. It’s a failure. Calling it a success is just spin.

In the Potter budget for FY15, it is estimated $1,000,000 will go to cover the loss for Coborn’s Plaza. This means the loss on the Coborn’s Plaza apartments represents 77.6% of the total budget shortfall faced this year. Thus, without the loss on Coborn’s Plaza, the budget would only need to cut just over $2,500,000 this year to restore balance. Even cutting $2,500,000 would be significant and painful. However, cutting $9,542,000 instead of 2,542,000 is something that will be incredibly difficult. It certainly will not lead to an improvement in the morale on campus because so much of the cut is a direct result of poor financial decisions by President Potter. Does anyone really think that if the Great Place to Work survey was to be repeated, the results for the administration would improve? Does anyone think the administration that has led SCSU to this point can provide the motivation and leadership to turn things around?

Unfortunately, it looks like the university with the largest enrollment decline in MnSCU’s history seems to be following the same path that led to the decline in the first place—a big dose of crisis management with dash of wishful thinking and happy talk. President Potter, enjoy your trip to China.

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