Dip in college enrollments puts pressure on colleges, universities

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Capital News Service

LANSING – A majority of private and public colleges and universities in the state are seeing enrollment – the determining factor in their revenue – decrease.

As a result, some have halted construction plans, raised tuition and marketed beyond their normal recruitment base.

At the height of the Great Recession in 2008, enrollment in Michigan colleges peaked at 77,076 recent high school graduates. 

Since then, there’s been a steady decline to 45,836 recent in-state high school graduates pursuing college in 2021, according to the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities.

Robert LeFevre, the president of the association representing private institutions, said that a job market that is struggling now, like it did in 2008, draws students into higher education.

That explains the enrollment peak during the recession. 

But a competitive workforce draws graduates straight into jobs, meaning fewer pursue college. 

“When the economy is in rough shape, they go back to school. They go through training programs, they get associate degrees, many times they get bachelor’s degrees. There’s a shift back to education when the economy is bad,” LeFevre said.

A shift in funding public university education in Michigan from 70% state aid and 30% tuition and fees in 1979 to 22% state appropriations and 78% tuition and fees this year is exacerbating this problem, according to Dan Hurley, the president of the Michigan Association of Colleges and Universities which represents all 15 state universities.

Hurley said that there’s less need to increase tuition when the state increases appropriations to universities. 

After reducing aid, the state’s 2022 fiscal year is a significant improvement in increased supporting university operations, according to Hurley.

“We’re hopeful that the (Whitmer) administration and the Legislature continue to re-prioritize state funding and end the long era of state disinvestment in our public universities,” Hurley said. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has proposed a 4% increase in state funding for public universities in the budget year that starts Oct. 1. It will be up to the Legislature to determine the final amount.

Hurley said public universities will cut costs while protecting their core academic offerings, including hiring high-quality faculty and maintaining faculty-to-student ratios.

Grand Valley State University in Allendale has felt the effects of lower enrollment. 

In 2019, it had 24,033 students. That number declined to 21,648 in 2022, according to an Association of Colleges and Universities report. 

Grand Valley has moved towards increasing the useful life of the facilities that donors, students and the state have funded over the years without having to replace or construct new buildings, which are costly, according to communications director Chris Knape.

“The days of the massive building boom that we had here on campus over the past 20 years has subsided,” Knape said.

According to Knape, the university is making its budget conservative to keep education affordable while providing a great value to students.

Knape said that Grand Valley is focusing on attracting students from Michigan and placing them in careers in-state after they graduate. 

“It’s a good investment as the state considers how it’s funding higher education,” Knape said. “How much of its investment in these students actually stays here in Michigan when the students graduate?”

Hurley said post-secondary institutions are important in supplying employers with talent for economic development when the business community calls for it.

“Our programs answer the call that we’re hearing from Michigan employers to fill those empty jobs,” Knape said.

As for private universities and colleges that don’t get state appropriations, LeFevre says most see the same trend of enrollment dropping and that it is not an issue that affects public and private institutions differently.

Earlier this year, the Upper Peninsula’s Finlandia University, a small private institution in Hancock, announced it is closing because of shrinking enrollment and financial woes.

However, at least one university in the state has seen growth in new student headcounts.

Lawrence Technological University in Southfield saw a rise from 1,206 new students during the 2019-20 academic year, followed by 1,463 in 2020-21 and 1,748 in 2021-22.

President Tarek Sobh said he estimates that this academic year “will mark stunningly and very gratefully the fourth year of enrollment increases in new students.”

Sobh said the lack of a recent birth boom has led to a declining population of high school graduates for colleges to recruit, a problem felt across the nation. 

However, Sobh said that Lawrence Tech is avoiding that trend by focusing on technological and professional skills needed by industry, thus justifying the investment in education at the university. 

“We’re seeing 100% employment,” he said. “My problem since I became president is not to find jobs. My problem is to keep them until they graduate because the companies get the students for their first co-op or internship after their sophomore or junior year and they get offered a job,” Sobh said. 

Though Lawrence Tech is an exception, Sobh said universities can evolve to reverse the enrollment trend by changing their business model and teaching skills that the job market demands.

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