Webster University faces another decline in graduate enrollment. If the trend does not reverse in the spring semester, the university could see a sixth consecutive budget shortfall in 2017.
“This is more than bad luck,” said Provost Julian Schuster at a meeting of the Faculty AssemblySept. 20. “This is a systemic issue which we are facing as an institution.”
Webster is a primarily graduate institution, and graduate tuition makes up about 75 percent of the university’s total revenue.
Domestic graduate enrollment fulfilled 93 percent of what the university’s budget anticipated. On Webster’s international campuses, 2,752 students are enrolled in graduate classes, only 81 percent of what the university budgeted for.
Overall, graduate tuition will come in at eight percent below what the budget required if enrollment does not improve.
In 2012, Webster aimed to increase undergraduate enrollment to 5,000 students by 2020. Last year, undergraduate enrollment fell by 305 students.
This year, undergraduate enrollment at the Webster Groves campus increased, resulting in a final headcount of 142 more students than the university had expected.
Schuster said it was a particularly strong year for the School of Communications and Leigh Gerdine School of Fine Arts.
Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs Robert Parrent said the university will work on increasing undergraduate enrollment in the next few years through a $75,000 program targeting current sophomores and juniors in high school.
The strongest sector of graduate enrollment is online metro campus classes, with 134 percent of the budgeted enrollment.
Of Webster’s schools, the Walker School of Business and Technology, which makes up 75 percent of tuition intake, has lost the largest portion of students.
Enrollment on international campuses has also continued to fall for the fifth consecutive year.
While Schuster said the budget projections for this academic year were more realistic than they have been in the past, the university could still face a budget shortfall of about $6 million.
Last year, a budget shortfall of $7 million led to budget cuts during the spring semester. The cuts led to in staff not receiving a raise in 2016, as well as some full-time faculty positions being reduced to adjuncts positions. In the past, the university has also responded to budget problems by leaving positions vacant and closing or restructuring extended campuses.
According to enrollment data released in 2015, Webster saw an enrollment decrease of about 1,600 students in that year, continuing a trend of shrinking enrollment that has been falling since 2011.
Schuster said the past few years have been an extremely hostile environment for Webster, due to economic difficulties and demographic problems. In addition to a nationwide trend of declining college enrollment, Schuster compared Webster’s current reliance on graduate above undergraduate enrollment to investing too much money in one stock.
“We wouldn’t be in this situation if the two were not unbalanced,” Schuster said.
Schuster said graduate programs at Webster can learn from the recent successes of undergraduate schools, particularly relatively new majors such as an animation. Over the next year, he said, the administration will look into how much is being spent per credit hour in each area and whether tuition prices are competitive.
“We are engaged in very careful analysis, and this is not being done in any kind of dark room,” Schuster said. “We need a long term, sustainable strategy.”