Michigan’s private universities enjoy stable enrollment, at least for now

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By JACK TIMOTHY HARRISON                   
Capital News Service

LANSING – Michigan’s private colleges and universities have stable overall enrollment, after a dip during the pandemic, but a shrinking population and declining high school graduation rates could still spell future troubles. 

The dramatic drop in high school graduates in Michigan starting in 2008 – from 77,076 to 45,836 in 2021– will affect both public and private institutions, said Ronald Fisher, a Michigan State University economics professor. 

“To put it simply, there aren’t enough students to go around for the institutional structure that was created in the past,” he said. 

Fisher said he would not be surprised to see private schools close. Finlandia University in Hancock, the only private institution in the Upper Peninsula, announced in March it will close due to financial challenges. This leaves roughly 400 students not graduating to complete their education elsewhere. 

Other private schools may merge and even public universities could close, Fisher said.

Both public and private schools are broadening their appeal to non-traditional students who instead want specialized training, he said. And they are trying to attract out-of-state students. 

Small schools that lack a secure financial base and are not well-known outside of the state struggle to attract a broader clientele, Fisher said.

“They’re at risk, there’s no doubt about it, just like some of the public universities are,” he said. 

Enrollment has stabilized at all types of colleges in Michigan, decreasing by 0.5% from fall 2021 to fall 2022, when it was previously down over 2% across higher education institutions. 

Four-year public universities represent the only sector where enrollment grew, with a 2.8% increase from fall 2021 to fall 2022, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

The population decline in Michigan, down over 43,000 from April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2022, is also hurting public institutions, including dramatic declines at Lake Superior State, Central Michigan University and Eastern Michigan University, Fisher said.

Enrollment has stabilized for the 25 members of the Michigan Independent Colleges and Universities, said Robert LeFevre, the group’s president.

The Michigan Colleges Alliance, representing 14 private institutions, also reports stable enrollment and finances, according to its president, Robert Bartlett.

Bartlett is not concerned about closures. Some members are experiencing record enrollment and more students are finding smaller campuses to be more attractive and there is increased affordability in higher education, he said. 

Nationally, enrollment has stabilized at private universities, according to Paul Hassen, director of communications and marketing for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

This spring undergraduate enrollment at private four-year institutions increased by 0.8 percent at nonprofit institutions, Hassen said.

Private institutions not receiving state funding can create challenges, said Dan King, president and chief executive officer of the American Association of University Administrators based in Pennsylvania. Most private schools are heavily tuition dependent, so revenue is based on enrollment and these schools could be more vulnerable. 

King said public universities may be more likely to have political support and that means they could be less likely to close than privates. In Michigan, 15 public universities receive just over $2 billion in state tax dollars a year in addition to student tuition and fees. 

“Public institutions are more secure, down the road they may look quite different than they do today, but they’re less likely to just flat out close because governments aren’t likely to let them close,” King said. 

Scott Imberman, an economics professor at Michigan State University, said major research institutions are in the best position for attracting students and staying open. 

Help could be coming with the new Michigan Achievement Scholarship to provide more student aid, LeFevre said.

The scholarship, which begins this spring, offers up to $5,500 for students attending public colleges and $4,400 for private colleges. It can be renewed annually for five years for those that meet the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and other requirements. 

“We now have four of our schools that have announced (Baker, Cleary, Cornerstone and Olivet) that if a student receives Pell and Michigan Achievement Scholarship, tuition will be free at the institutions,” LeFevre said.

To address enrollment decline, his association is working to meet the governor’s “Sixty by 30” goal, where 60% of the population has a certificate or degree by 2030, “so we need a larger percentage of those students to go on to post secondary.”

The state’s Reconnect Program provides free tuition to residents 25 or older to earn an associate’s degree at an in-district community college. LeFevre said there is a proposal in front of the Legislature to lower eligibility to those 21 and older.

Enrollment decline is not specific to Michigan and other states throughout the Midwest are struggling, according to LeFevre. 

Hassen, of National Association of Independent Colleges, said the Northeast and Midwest regions are projected to have the most enrollment decline of entering classes in the next decade, while the South and West will not decline at the same rate or may marginally grow. Part of this is because the East Coast has more schools, Hassen said.

“Private colleges are really focused on what is the right size, what is the right mix of programs and activities that are going to draw the students in to make the college be able to run efficiently, and that’s really what we’re talking about,” he said. 

King, of the American Association of University Administrators, said the pandemic funds provided to universities provided stability, but “the next three years has the potential for making private higher education, at least among the vulnerable schools.”

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