Staff Editorial: Rest assured, GW is weathering graduate enrollment declines

About a year ago, The Hatchet reported that the number of graduate students at GW had dipped for the first time in 13 years.

At the time, we didn’t think much of it – even this editorial board didn’t find it significant enough to warrant writing a staff editorial.

In the past year, though, this paper has published story after story about University programs that have struggled as a result of that dip, or efforts by GW’s schools to ward off its negative consequences – which have led to flat professor hiring rates, cuts to course selections and smaller financial aid packages.

This all came to a head in October, when Provost Steven Lerman announced that the University’s budget took a hit to the tune of $20 million – half of which was a direct result of the graduate enrollment decline.

But there are a couple things to keep in mind here – namely, that this reflects a national trend, possibly exacerbated by GW’s dependence on tuition dollars. The University relies on tuition for about 62 percent of its revenue, which is the second-highest rate among GW’s 14 peer schools. So when enrollment declines, it hits GW’s finances right where it hurts.

Nonetheless, since this was a largely unpredictable occurrence, it wasn’t the result of any missteps on the University’s part. Fewer people signing up for graduate school is actually a sign that the job market is improving, so that should serve as some reassurance to those apprehensive about not finding work after graduation.

In general, GW has done a good job picking up the pieces after this decline. It’s working to create a system that will forecast graduate enrollment for the next five years, which would improve the budgeting process so shortfalls don’t happen again. And even these losses haven’t been disastrous – the $20 million represented just 1 percent of GW’s operating budget.

Meanwhile, to fill in the gaps, the University has emphasized online education: Schools are offering new online degree programs, and the University plans to target prospective graduate students through digital communication campaigns.

The University can obviously benefit from these programs financially. They often draw in new students who otherwise may not have taken any GW classes. While colleges and universities sometimes worry that offering online courses will bring down enrollment in the classroom, in reality, “if they offer the program online, they will retain those students and gain additional ones,” according to a 2013 Learning House study.

GW should ensure that as many students as possible know about online courses so they take advantage of them. For undergraduates, they can easily be taken over the summer to fill outstanding requirements, and can also help students graduate on time, or even early.

Sure, the University makes more money when we pay tuition for additional full semesters. But since GW is already making an effort to offer these courses, they should try marketing them more effectively to undergraduates who might find them attractive. Advisers can suggest them during meetings with students, while individual schools could send emails explaining that unique classes are offered online.

Another strategy might be to look at areas that have actually seen enrollment increases in recent months, like GW’s nursing school or big data program. While these aren’t programs that traditionally receive attention – they’re not housed in a $275 million Science and Engineering Hall, for example, nor are they University hallmarks like political science and international affairs – GW should continue boosting niche areas to pull in that critical revenue.

The Learning House report also found that “colleges and universities seeking to expand their footprint in the online marketplace should strongly consider offering online degree programs in business-related topics.” Business dominates the market of online graduate degrees, with almost 40 percent of online students choosing to study in that field. GW already has a growing business school, and it could devote those resources to developing more lucrative online business programs.

And lastly, the report recommends that schools advertise their accreditation to draw students away from their competitors. GW may not be an online education behemoth – like the University of Phoenix, for example – but building reputable programs of its own shouldn’t prove too difficult. GW already boasts a decent national ranking, renowned faculty and a reputation as a selective not-for-profit university.

For this and other reasons, we’re left feeling positive about GW’s remedies for the graduate enrollment drop. So far, we’ve been able to weather the storm relatively well, and we can rest assured knowing the future doesn’t look too rocky either.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Robin Jones Kerr and contributing opinions editor Sarah Blugis, based on discussions with managing director Justin Peligri, sports editor Sean Hurd and copy editor Rachel Smilan-Goldstein.

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