While a two percent drop WMU’s 2012 fall enrollment numbers doesn’t sound like a devastating event on paper, the consequences of even a minor decline has played a major role in molding the short-term future of the university.
According to the annual enrollment report released last month by the Office of Institutional Research, 24,598 students enrolled for classes this fall, a decrease of nearly 500 students from the same time period last year. The university saw the biggest drop in full-time undergraduate students, going from 16,995 to 16,303, a four percent decrease. The number of incoming transfer students also fell, from 1,973 students to 1,895.
Enrollment is down across nearly all of WMU’s academic colleges compared to last fall as well, with the College of Arts and Sciences seeing the biggest decline, losing nearly 400 students. Only the College of Aviation and the College of Health and Human Services seen a bump in students.
While the official numbers may have been unveiled publicly a few weeks ago, WMU’s senior leadership have been expecting to see a dip since the middle of the summer.
“We saw the decline quite early on,” said WMU President John Dunn. “As those who attend the trustees meetings of the university know, we could see the trend line. Our ability to forecast is really quite good here.”
As a result, this year’s operating budget was constructed around the anticipated down growth, Dunn said. Because of this early outlook, the school is projected to operate this entire academic year without running a deficit, a feat it has accomplished every year since Dunn took over as president in 2007.
“We had to restructure, we had to think a little differently about the things we’re doing,” Dunn said. “We’re on go, and the lights are on. The experience for the student remains our number one commitment.”
Despite this fact, the decreased enrollment is seen a setback toward getting the overall student body an ideal size. While the current number is still higher than the recent low of 24,433 seen in 2007, it’s much lower than the Dunn’s goal of 26,500 he set when took over as the head of the university.
While it’s impossible to pin the blame on a single factor, Dunn and other administrators have identified the main reasons for this year’s decline. One of the prime reasons a statewide decrease in graduating high school seniors, which, on top of a decline in community college students, has drained a large portion of the pool of potential incoming freshmen and transfer students, Dunn said.
Dunn also said that the rising cost of college attendance has played a role in keeping some potential students from enrolling, especially in light of the continual educational cuts made by the Michigan legislature.
“I think money in general is an issue for many families and students,” Dunn said. “As I expressed in my convocation the other day, I think the state of Michigan has really disserviced its students and families. There’s no Michigan Promise anymore, there’s no state scholarships. Students and families need help, and while we’re putting 40 million into financial aid resources here at the university, we need the state to return to, and to be cognizant of, their responsibilities to also help our young people via scholarships.”
The news from last month’s report isn’t all negative though. Around 100 more graduate students enrolled this semester compared to last year, while the number of students from outside Michigan rose for the fifth consecutive year, most of whom are from outside the United States.
“The percentage of underrepresented students is up, international students up, out-of-state is up, grad students are up,” said WMU Provost Tim Greene. “There’s a lot of positive things happening here.”
In addition, Greene pointed out that the university has made strides in signing up students who had left the university prior to gaining their diploma. His office has spent the last few years contacting former students who were within 45 hours of finishing their degree, encouraging them to return to the university, either to classes on campus or via online tele courses.
“We’ve been very successful in bringing a number of students back who have been out multiple years, who find it now possible for them to finish their degrees,” he said. “A message we like to send is, for those who stopped out, whether it be from last year or from ten years ago, Western is still their family and we want to work with them to get them back in.”
This isn’t the only area the university is shoring up in hopes of bolstering their enrollment numbers for next year. In July, the financial aid office had an outside agency conduct a study on the office’s distribution of institutional based aid to students. The results of that study are due back later this month, and should give their staff a better idea on to optimize university scholarships and grants in future years, said Mark Delorey, the WMU director of financial aid.
“In financial aid, you need to have some aid based on merit and some based on need ,” Delorey said. “The question is, exactly what ratio, exactly what formula, is going to produce the best result.”
While figuring out how best to maximize these funds for future students may play role in helping next year’s enrollment figures, it will take the combined efforts of the financial aid, enrollment and advising offices to truly make a difference.
“We want to make sure that students who want to enroll here now what their options are for financing,” Delorey said. “If I decide to enroll, is it affordable, how will I be able to pay for it?”
However, administrators aren’t the only ones who can make a difference for next year, President Dunn said, encouraging current students to spread the word about the university, whether it be via social media or word-of-mouth.
“When [students] are back in their home communities, they should let people know, ’Hey, I’m a Bronco, and life’s pretty good there,” he said.
While Dunn doesn’t expect WMU to reach his prior goal of 26,500 students within the next year, him and the rest of the university is confident the school can avoid a repeat performance of this year’s enrollment slide.
“It’s early in the recruiting cycle, but I’m very confident in the activities we are doing on campus with our current students, and in the reputation of WMU not only statewide but nationwide,” Provost Greene said. “I’m fully expecting in our enrollment next year.”