More budget cuts loom after graduate enrollment drops again

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Officials are planning for another round of budget cuts after graduate enrollment in half of GW’s schools dropped again this year.

Total graduate enrollment declined across departments, which means the University didn’t make its projected revenues for the first half of the fiscal year, Provost Steven Lerman and Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz wrote in a letter to faculty last week. The announcement marks the second year in a row that officials have warned about budget constraints for the year because of enrollment fluctuations.

Department heads will have to scale back spending in travel and professional development, and the University will take a closer look at why new hires are being made, Lerman and Katz wrote in the letter obtained by The Hatchet.

“We believe increasing our cost management actions along with efforts to grow enrollment strikes the right balance between cost management and investing in our future,” the letter read.

This year, graduate enrollment dropped by a net of five students from the previous year, when the total declined by 156 students, according to data from the Office of Institutional Research and Planning. But overall, the University’s total graduate enrollment has grown over the past five years: It’s up by 5 percent since 2010, when there were 10,562 graduate students.

Graduate student enrollment peaked in 2012 when GW counted 11,272 students.

Charles Garris, the chair of the Faculty Senate’s executive committee, said professor have discussed ways to enhance programs and make degree options more attractive. He added that most of the expenses that have already been cut are “goodies,” like faculty lunches or other extra events.

“Faculty are rallying to the idea of figuring out how to improve the enrollment,” he said. “The way we understand it is that it’s not exactly a systemic problem because enrollments do rise and fall.”

Undergraduate enrollment has also grown by 2.5 percent in the past five years. The number of undergraduates dipped last year, which officials attributed to a smaller applicant pool.

An emphasis on tuition reliance
For the second year in a row, expenses were larger than expected. Half of the roughly $20 million deficit GW accumulated last year resulted from overspending, and the letter said spending across the University has been higher than budgeted so far this fiscal year.

GW is more dependent on tuition for revenue than most of the universities it considers peers because of a relatively smaller endowment. Tuition made up 66 percent of GW’s total revenue last year, according to a recent Faculty Senate report.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Sam Hardgrove | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Graduate student enrollment decreased in the School of Engineering and Applied Science this year – a drop that comes as the Science and Engineering Hall, GW’s largest academic investment, opens.

To better plan for expenses, the University hired Rene Stewart O’Neal to create a new budget model that would look longer-term and could be accompanied by an enrollment model to anticipate fluctuations.

Lerman declined to comment on how schools tried to balance selectivity and tuition needs, what expenses were more than what the University had budgeted, whether officials had anticipated extra expenses for a second year and how schools were updating their recruitment practices to attract more graduate students.

Matt Hamill, a senior vice president at the National Association of College and University Business Officers, said having a campus-wide conversation about a longer-term budget model was one way to better plan for enrollment changes.

Still, GW should anticipate the national climate around graduate school as more students cast doubt on the benefits of master’s degrees, he said.

“I do think student willingness to continue their education perhaps has changed a little bit as the job market hasn’t shown the robust growth we might have expected,” he said.

Jason DeWitt, a research manager at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center who has studied enrollment and graduation rates nationally, said institutions that rely heavily on tuition for revenue have struggled as the country recovers from the 2008 recession. More students sought advanced degrees nationwide during that period to stand out in a more competitive job market and prolong starting a job search.

“That’s kind of the million-dollar question there: Are there funding models that can be less susceptible to short-term economic volatility?” he said.

A new building, but falling enrollment in engineering
The School of Engineering and Applied Science saw its first drop in graduate enrollment in five years – which comes at the same time as the opening of its $275 million new home, a hall that officials invested in because they said it would bring in top-tier students and researchers. The Science and Engineering Hall, an eight-story, one-city-block-wide building, is the most expensive academic investment the University has made in its history.

Enrollment in the engineering school grew by more than 200 graduate students between 2010 and 2013, but this year’s 214-student decline came as SEAS planned to use its new building, in part, to draw in a crop of high-caliber students.

Dean David Dolling declined to comment on the school’s drop in enrollment or if it has affected the building’s opening this semester.

DeWitt, who published a study in January about national growth in science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees last month, said there has been a national push to increase enrollment in the sciences and engineering. His report found that nationwide enrollment in STEM fields increased by about 38 percent over the past decade.

“It’s more a matter of debate of whether the growth of STEM has been fast enough,” he said. “And whether or not STEM should grow at the expense of other divisions.”

Declines in GW’s ‘cash cows’
Some of the schools that saw declines this year are typically considered cash cows – the schools that the University relies on most to bring in tuition dollars, like the School of Business and SEAS. The GW Law School and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences also experienced declines, though neither contribute to the University’s overall administrative budget.

Graduate enrollment in the School of Business dropped 7.6 percent, or by 131 students, between 2012 and this year. The two-year decrease followed three years of growth in the master’s and doctoral pool.

The law school accepted its largest first-year J.D. class since 2010 this fall. Still, enrollment is lower than average after the school accepted a smaller first-year class two years ago. This year, it enrolled 1,807 students.

The School of Medicine and Health Sciences has seen a gradual decline over the last four years, with graduate enrollment dropping 3.2 percent overall since 2011.

In other schools, rebounding enrollment
Among GW’s liberal arts-based colleges, enrollment rebounded this year. That helped balance out the total enrollment numbers. The Columbian College of Arts and Sciences added an additional 89 graduate students from the year before.

About a year ago, Columbian College officials told department heads they would see their first budget decline in several years, meaning they’d have to cut back on hiring adjuncts and graduate teaching assistants. The school also listed fewer new faculty positions open for searches in the fall.

One department chair in the Columbian College, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was still unclear after a chairs’ meeting Friday morning how travel and training cuts would affect faculty because they were told that travel for students and faculty to present at conferences wouldn’t be cut.

“It is already quite low compared to other universities. We also do not have any significant training costs. It’s clear that we will need to be budget conscious in any ways that we can to do our part to address the budget problem,” the professor said.

The Elliott School of International Affairs, College of Professional Studies, Milken Institute School of Public Health and School of Nursing also increased their enrollments after either one or two years of declines.

In an email, Lerman pointed to growing online enrollment in the Milken Institute School of Public Health and the School of Nursing as examples of strong programs that other schools could use as models.

“In some cases, the number of applications was less than in previous years. In others, there is a high degree of competition among institutions for the same applicant pool,” he said.

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