December 4, 2020

Low undergraduate enrollment may cause budget adjustments

GRAPHIC BY VICTORIA COURTNEY

Tom Hart has taught the first-year seminar “Springsteen’s America” at Webster University for 10 years. The class explores musician Bruce Springsteen’s career and influences and has been a popular course with freshmen.

In July, Robin Assner, director of first-year seminars, told Hart “Springsteen’s America” would be canceled for the fall semester due to low class size. At the time, only four freshmen registered for the course.

“Apparently, they had come to the conclusion that there were probably more sections (of first-year seminars) than what were necessary,” Hart said.

Along with Hart’s class, Assner canceled two more first-year seminars due to small class numbers. These included Richard Ryffel’s class, “2012 Presidential Election and the Evolution of Political Discourse in the United States,” and Mary Baken’s class, “Narrating the Self Through Words.”

As Assner prepared for the fall 2012 first year seminars in November of last year, she said the admissions office told her to plan seminars for 500 incoming freshmen. As of Aug. 14, a total of 405 students are registered in first-year seminars, now a required course for graduation from Webster.

Last year, 472 students made up the freshman class of 2011. According to enrollment data from the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, this year-to-year volatility in freshman population is characteristic of the past 10 years.

Paul Carney, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs, said the university’s budget for the fiscal year is based on a “conservative” estimate for the number of expected students. The budget committee, of which Carney is a member, set that “conservative” estimate at 453 full-time students for this year’s freshman class back in April, Carney stated.

He also said admissions told Assner to plan for 500 freshman students based upon the large number of students admitted by the university this past year. This number, Carney said, was comparable to the number of students admitted two years ago.

“(The Office of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs) is looking at trends; we are also dealing with the goals. Trying to figure that out,” Carney said. “And the other part I would say is that we were trying to budget conservatively. I mean, we had a stretch goal of 500. Yes, I understood it. I supported it. We were going for it. I don’t want to bet the budget on it.”

Greg Gunderson, vice president and chief financial officer, said budget adjustments are a possibility if the university is unable to meet its revenue projections. More than 90 percent of Webster’s revenue comes from tuition fees.

“If we are unable to achieve the revenue numbers that we anticipated, then we as an institution will examine ways to manage within our budget to deliver the numbers we’ve committed to,” Gunderson said.

These budget goals count only full-time students (13 to 18 credit hours) who pay a flat fee for tuition. It ignores part-time students as well as students who do not pay tuition as a university benefit, known as tuition remission, to their employed parent, guardian, spouse or domestic partner. The total number of students in first-year seminars includes full-time and part-time students, as well as those receiving tuition remission.

In 2011, 15 freshmen received tuition remission. As of Aug. 14, eight freshman students are receiving tuition remission for the 2012 fall semester. Carney believes the number of students who receive tuition remission will grow as more Webster employees submit the paperwork for their children before the semester begins.

Carney conceded the 453-student budget goal would not be met, but he said he did believe the freshman class size would rise between 410 and 420 students before enrollment is measured after the add/drop period ends the second week of the semester.

Carney also said the total undergraduate enrollment for fall 2012 would offset any loss from the freshman count. Carney said Webster had budgeted for 2,178 undergraduate students and historically, about 50 undergraduate students receive tuition remission each year. A total of 2,066 undergraduate students have enrolled as of Aug. 3 Aug. 10.

Carney said he believed the undergraduate budget goal could be reached at or within 20 students of its target by the tally date. Last year, 2,372 students were enrolled as undergraduates when the population was measured after the add/drop period.

 

As pool of high school graduates shrinks, administrators see opportunities

This year’s freshman enrollment decrease, Carney said, can be linked to smaller populations of high school students in Missouri and Illinois. These markets supply Webster with a majority of its undergraduate population.

A 2008 survey by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicted Missouri’s graduating high school senior population would peak at 70,136 students in 2010. In the subsequent years, Missouri’s high school graduate population would decrease until 2015, at a rate as high as 4 percent per year. In that same period, the study predicted Illinois would also see its high school graduate population decrease at a rate as high as 2.5 percent per year.

Along with a shrinking pool of high school graduates, Carney said the slow economic recovery caused prospective students and their families to pass on a Webster education. In lieu of expensive four-year private universities, Carney said more students are choosing to enroll at community colleges.

Still, Carney and Gunderson see an opportunity to grow Webster’s undergraduate transfer population from the increased number of community college graduates. Coupled with healthy retention numbers, Gunderson said these factors could offset a decrease in freshman enrollment in future years. Gunderson added that transfer students tend to have smaller discount packages than their freshman counterparts.

“As the CFO (chief financial officer), I would say we need growing tuition revenue and the single best way to achieve growing tuition revenue is to have larger freshman classes every year,” Gunderson stated. “But having larger classes generally is good. If we can recruit more and more students from community college, that still feeds the machine.”

Beyond community college students, Gunderson said investments in new buildings, faculty and programs will help entice students to come to Webster, thus growing enrollment. He highlighted the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE). Gunderson also said Webster is continuing to strengthen its outreach to military members and their dependents through a number of initiatives to increase enrollment.

 

Discount reduced unintentionally for fall 2012, but future is uncertain

When Webster offers a student a university-funded academic scholarship or Webster Grant, it charges the student less tuition or room and board. This deduction is known as a discount.

Discount at Webster is split into two categories: merit discount (Webster academic scholarship) and need-based discount (Webster University Grant). Carney said Webster had not reduced the amount of money available for either discount or changed the criteria for awarding discount for the incoming freshman class of 2012.

Carney stated this year the number of incoming freshman students who qualified for need-based discount was lower than last year’s freshman class. With a decrease in the number of students receiving discount, the total amount spent on the need-based discount fell. The reduction in the total amount of discount, Carney said, was unintentional.

Carney said the university plans to decrease the amount of need-based discount available to both potential 2013 and 2014 freshman students.

Gunderson said Webster’s decision to decrease discount is in response to the “unsustainable” behavior in higher education to increase tuition, coupled with an increase in discount, to outpace inflation. By keeping Webster’s tuition increases at 3 percent and lower than similar institutions, and by reducing discount to peer institution levels, Gunderson said Webster and its students would benefit financially in the long run. Stability in pricing, he added, would make Webster more attractive to prospective students than Washington University or Saint Louis University.

Citing analysis from the consulting firm Hardwick Day, Carney said a loss of about 25 possible freshman students per 1 percent drop in discount is possible.

“These people (Hardwick Day) know what they’re doing. We said 1 percent — 25 kids. How many people were we off (this year)? Fifty. What do we think the number is going to be in terms of the (total amount of) discount (decrease for this year)? Two percent off,” Carney said before a short pause. “You know, I believe in numbers. I believe in quantitative analysis. I believe in data. And that’s pretty much right on. And then you tell me we’re going to do that for fall 2013 and we’re going to do that for fall 2014. You ask me what I think the number is going to be? It’s not going to be 500.”

In contrast, Gunderson said enrollment could see growth despite a decrease in need-based discount. He said the university could attempt to appeal to students with less financial need or to students with third-party financial aid. This could include a non-Webster scholarship or federal aid for the children of military members. Gunderson said he did not believe a reduction in discount would affect freshman enrollment adversely.

“We’re looking to continue on a path of 5 percent freshman enrollment growth going forward and we are going to get there,” Gunderson said.

Carney said a retreat was held on Aug. 13 and 14 at the Pere Marquette Park in Grafton, Ill., to discuss how to increase student enrollment for next year, as well as three to five years in the future with an improved economy in mind. Those who attended included the deans, vice presidents of several offices and Provost Juilian Schuster.

Carney avoided saying whether he would advocate for one position over the other. However, he said he would tell his colleagues he did not see how the university can grow the freshman class next year by cutting discount unless the university invests in new programs.

— Megan Favignano contributed to this report.

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