Planned enrollment cut tied to national decline in high school graduates, officials say

Media Credit: File Photo by Ari Golub | Photographer

University President Thomas LeBlanc said at a Faculty Senate meeting that admissions staff are responding to nationwide declines in high school graduates by decreasing overall enrollment.

Officials’ decision to cut undergraduate enrollment over the next four years comes amid a predicted nationwide decline in the number of high school graduates seeking college degrees.

Between the 2012-13 and 2024-25 academic years, the regions from which GW draws the most students – New England and the mid-Atlantic states – will face declines in high school graduates seeking college degrees, according to a December Faculty Senate presentation. Officials are responding to the demographic decrease with their plan to cut undergraduate enrollment by 20 percent and to enroll more students from regions that are growing, like the South and Southwest.

“Right now, where you’re seeing those declines that have already taken place, that is a major source of students at GW,” University President Thomas LeBlanc said at the senate meeting. “So it’s something that we’re already facing as a headwind in admissions.”

New England states are predicted to experience a 9 percent decline in high school graduates – nearly 15,800 students, according to the presentation. The number of high school graduates in the “middle states,” including New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland, are expected to decrease 1 percent, or by roughly 5,600 students.

Students from New York, New Jersey and Virginia represent the largest populations among GW’s 10,615 undergraduates, according to institutional data. More than 1,000 students from each state are enrolled at the University.

LeBlanc said the enrollment cut is the “proper balance” between improving the student experience and responding to the dip in the number of high school graduates.

He added that officials are expanding “efforts” to draw high school graduates from southwestern states like Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico – the region of the United States projected to experience the largest increase in graduates, by about 17 percent, according to the presentation.

LeBlanc said the University will also admit 100 to 125 more transfer students each year to smooth out any significant drops in class sizes from year to year.

The enrollment cut is projected to result in an annual loss of revenue ranging from $8 million to $36.2 million a year and reduce underrepresented minority enrollment from 2 to 7 percent relative to the baseline, according to models presented in October by the Office of the Provost.

LeBlanc said at the senate meeting that officials will make “a commitment to not give an inch on our diversity gains.” He said in October that officials expect a tuition revenue drop of about $16 million a year.

“None of the models were a proposal for what we should do next year, because admissions changes over time have to be somewhat gradual,” LeBlanc said about the provost office’s modeling information. “Otherwise, your yield models fall apart, you lose your accuracy and you’re taking enormous risks in actually achieving your goals.”

Enrollment experts say the decrease in high school graduates seeking college degrees is driven by declining birth rates in the years after the 2008 financial crisis, which created financial instability in young households.

Brett Morris, the associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of North Georgia, said institutions should start planning for the decline in high school graduates immediately to avoid having the lull in applicants turn into a “campus crisis.”

“Universities should begin to husband resources in reserves and avoid significant financial commitments that may increase debt load,” Morris said in an email. “While it is hopeful to identify programs and markets for expansion, achieving this kind of change, in a climate of furious competition will be exceedingly difficult.”

Paul Marthers, the vice provost for enrollment management at Emory University, said universities are not yet in the “deepest part of the decline” in high school graduate numbers, referencing research that predicts a 15 percent decline over the next decade.

He said drops in international enrollment nationwide – in part prompted by geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and countries that contribute a large number of international students like China – mean colleges cannot substitute declining domestic applications with international ones. GW’s international enrollment in 2018 dipped for the first time in nine years.

Marthers said strategies for boosting enrollment are “everywhere,” from recruiting in new areas of the country to increasing financial aid and adjusting tuition policies. GW recently eliminated fixed tuition for the incoming Class of 2024 to allow administrators more flexibility in allocating money to the GW community’s “evolving needs.”

“I think colleges and universities that are in those challenged spaces are wrestling with this from a lot of angles,” he said.

Daniel Villanueva, the associate vice president for enrollment management at the University of Houston-Downtown, said universities will need to increase transfer and graduate student enrollment to compensate for declining undergraduate interest. He added that enrollment management may have to shift from focusing on growth to incorporating “downsizing management” – how and where to make budget cuts and shrink departments.

“More and more institutions are experiencing enrollment declines and they’re not ready and/or prepared to manage downsizing,” Villanueva said in an email. “Institutions will have to incorporate projections and modeling within their decision-making process more and more.”

Shannon Mallard contributed reporting.

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