Enrollment decrease could boost rankings, decrease revenues: experts

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo by Alexander Welling | Assistant Photo Editor

At a town hall earlier this month, University President Thomas LeBlanc said reducing undergraduate enrollment emphasizes quality over quantity.

Reducing the undergraduate student population could increase selectivity and impact GW’s finances, officials and experts said.

Under University President Thomas LeBlanc’s direction, officials plan to enroll 2,110 new undergraduates – a decrease of about 17.3 percent – in the Class of 2024 as part of a multiple-year plan to reduce enrollment by about 20 percent, according to a budget presentation at a Faculty Senate meeting this month. Officials said the decision comes ahead of an anticipated nationwide drop in college enrollment, but the change will reduce GW’s revenues.

“During my first year here at GW, I listened to you, and together we developed our aspirations,” LeBlanc said at a town hall meeting earlier this month. “We came together in town halls and many meetings with faculty, staff, students, alumni and trustees. And I can sum up in three words the feedback that I heard from all of you: ‘better, not bigger.’”

LeBlanc said the reduction will help officials offer a better undergraduate experience – one of his four pillars guiding the University’s next strategic plan – by prioritizing quality over quantity. GW has stretched its resources with the growing undergraduate population, he said.

Full-time, on-campus undergraduate enrollment grew by about 13.8 percent between 2013 and 2018, according to institutional data. GW enrolled its largest freshman class in at least 10 years in 2018.

Revenue impacts
Joseph Cordes, a professor of economics and the Faculty Senate’s fiscal planning and budgeting committee chair, said the enrollment drop will improve GW’s college rankings placement and provide officials with room to maneuver the enrollment cap enshrined in an agreement between GW and the District.

But he added that the move will cost the University revenue from tuition. Cordes’ unofficial financial estimates presented at the senate meeting showed that GW will experience about a $9.2 million revenue gap in academic year 2020-21 resulting from the reduction in enrollment and the transition to a floating tuition model.

The gap will grow to $37.5 million by academic year 2023-24, according to Cordes’ estimates.

He said the estimates could change, especially as officials consider proposals to attract a greater share of science, technology, engineering and math majors to enroll through increased financial aid. LeBlanc said at the town hall that administrators plan to increase the share of STEM students from about 19 percent to about 30 percent of the undergraduate body.

“From having fewer undergraduates and also to get to the 30 percent target on STEM majors, we might need to increase financial aid to attract them,” Cordes said. “Competition is going to be fierce for that pool of students.”

LeBlanc has continually advocated for increasing the proportion of students pursuing STEM-related degrees to reach parity with the University’s peer institutions.

“I’m confident there are a lot of avenues to allow us to be a stronger place with a smaller student body with more emphasis on STEM,” LeBlanc said in an interview this month. “We’re not trying to be [the California Institute of Technology], but more emphasis on STEM than we have today.”

He added that the cost estimates could “wildly” change as plans are solidified.

Jay Halfond, a professor of the practice of continuing and distance education at Boston University, said the enrollment decrease could have a wide range of effects, from a decrease in expenditures to cuts to student services like advisers and financial aid staff.

“The key question is how GW plans to make up for the lost revenue – will there be more professional master’s enrollments, more online distance learning, more international students, more part-time adult learners?” Halfond said in an email. “These are the typical strategies ambitious universities pursue to sustain their revenues while they increase their selectivity.”

Britt Brockman, the chairman of the University of Kentucky’s Board of Trustees, said the change will coincide with a projected national decline in enrollment and added that he would “only suspect” that change is a “good” idea.

“If a purposeful decision has been made by your institution, to shrink what has otherwise been a rising enrollment, I suspect there’s a darn good reason that your president would do that,” Brockman said.

Increasing selectivity
Halfond said other prominent private universities, including Boston University, have decreased the size of recent freshman classes to reduce their admissions rates and advance in college rankings. But as more universities join in the trend, GW’s individual action may not actually cause the school to move up in rankings, he said.

The University fell seven spots to No. 70 in the most recent U.S. News and World Report rankings, the second year in a row in which GW dropped seven places in the rankings. The University is now at its lowest spot in more than a decade.

“If everyone tries to advance in the rankings, no one is likely to – so this might be more of a defensive move for GW, as well as an anticipation of expected national declines in the number of 18-year-olds in the decade ahead,” he said.

College enrollment has fallen for eight consecutive years, according to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report. Experts have forecasted a significant drop in the college-going population in the next 10 to 15 years as a result of a recent decline in birth rates in the United States.

The future of the Vern
At the town hall earlier this month, LeBlanc said the enrollment decrease will create an “important opportunity” for officials to “rethink” the Mount Vernon Campus, since “roughly half” of students living there aren’t satisfied.

Under current zoning regulations, GW is required to house 80 percent of students on campus. LeBlanc said the University will not legally need to house students on the Vern after the enrollment decrease.

“The beauty of it is it now raises the question, ‘OK, now we don’t have any requirements, we have no limits, what should we do?’” LeBlanc said at the town hall. “I think that’s a great thought exercise, and I’m looking forward to it. I don’t have a great answer to it.”

Tyler Kusma, a resident adviser in West Hall who attended the town hall, said LeBlanc’s comments have raised a lot of questions from his residents about the Vern’s future. He added that he hopes officials have a comprehensive conversation with students before making any major decision.

“I think the Vern teams over the past several years have made a much more concerted effort to focus on the positives of the Mount Vernon Campus and to really own the experience,” Kusma said. “And what I would hate to see is the University look at the stereotypes and the perceptions of the Vern and make a judgment based on that.”

Shannon Mallard and Parth Kotak contributed reporting.

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