Sunday, October 20, 2019

UW Oshkosh enrollment falls past projections, with sharpest drops at its two-year campuses

UW Oshkosh finished last year in the black by $4.2 million but says it does not have financial "flexibilities"
By Miles Maguire
Enrollment at UW Oshkosh has fallen below the projected low that had been set as the turning point in the school’s multiyear effort to repair its financial condition, raising the possibility of even deeper budget cuts.

The Oshkosh enrollment numbers, showing a decline of 3.4% at its main campus, are worse than the trend for the entire UW System, a drop of 2.6%, and they contrast sharply with data from UW Green Bay, which reported an increase of 9.7% for its main campus.

At the two-year schools that have been merged with UW Oshkosh the enrollment numbers are even worse. The Fox Cities campus, in Menasha, has seen a 30.5% drop in students, to 1,132, while Fond du Lac reported a 24.9% percent fall to just 435.

“UWO’s latest enrollment snapshot is not surprising to us,” said Oshkosh Chancellor Andrew J. Leavitt. “We just about hit our overall enrollment expectations this fall.”

The official explanation for the systemwide decline in enrollment is based on demographics and the strong economy. “Amid a strong jobs market, enrollment in colleges traditionally dips,” said UW System President Ray Cross.

But some classroom instructors see a different explanation. “The cause of this is the chronic underfunding of the UW System by the Republican legislature,” said Jim Feldman, the director of UWO’s Environmental Studies Program and the president of the campus chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.

He called the current situation a “manufactured crisis” that has been compounded by the “absurdly poorly planned and poorly thought out merger” of the UW System’s four-year and two-year schools.

Early last year Leavitt said he expected the Oshkosh campus to hit a low point this semester before starting a rebound in enrollment. He projected a student body of 8,500, but the actual number this fall was 8,410. These numbers are “full-time equivalents,” which is a way of measuring enrollment size that takes into account students who are carrying a full course load as well as those who are part-time.

Because of a decline in state aid, all of the UW campuses are much more dependent on tuition revenue than was historically the case. Fluctuations in headcount have a powerful impact on the financial health of each institution, according to university officials.

The competition for students has also become more intense, and the opposite experiences of Oshkosh and Green Bay beg the question of why one school is declining while the other is rising.

The two schools are just an hour’s drive apart, have similar program offerings and both stress their service to Northeast Wisconsin. Green Bay has a higher acceptance rate than Oshosh, but its requirements are similar. Reported scores on the ACT for both schools are roughly the same, according to the UW System.

“We are on a mission to serve the needs of this region with distinct programs that support the economy in areas such as engineering, education, nursing and business, while we continue to invest in the cultural resources that make our 16-county footprint one that is desirable for graduates to live and work [in],” said UWGB’s provost, Michael Alexander. The school is currently without a permanent chancellor.

A spokeswoman for Green Bay emphasized the school’s efforts to develop ties to the community and to meet local needs. UW Oshkosh, by contrast, is in the process of repairing its ties to local leaders and boosters after engaging in an extended legal battle with its fundraising arm, the UW Oshkosh Foundation.

One recruiting innovation that Green Bay has adopted is placing admissions counselors in local high schools. “The embedded counselors help hundreds of high school students overcome obstacles that often prevent students from achieving a college degree,” said Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Jen Jones. The counselors, who are UWGB employees, help with applications, transcripts and financial aid, and first meet with students when they are in eighth grade.

Attracting first-year students is just one part of the enrollment, however. Getting students to continue in school and attracting transfer students are also critical elements of the process.

Feldman questions whether recent administrative decisions are contributing to problems with retention and transfers.

A year ago UW Oshkosh said it needed to reduce its spending on teaching and teaching-related activities by 10 percent to balance its budget. The results have been a reduction in course offerings as well as an increase in teaching loads for many faculty members.

With faculty members handling more classes, they might be reducing their participation in “high impact practices,” such as teaching one-on-one independent study classes and involving students in their research, Feldman said.

Fewer courses and fewer opportunities for student-faculty collaboration could be contributing to the enrollment decline, Feldman said.

While faculty members are asked to do more, “the administrative units don't seem to be asked to take cuts that are as deep or as central to the mission of the university,” Feldman said.

He pointed to a recent report by Wisconsin Public Radio showing that UW Oshkosh added 21 administrators between 2014 and 2017 while cutting faculty positions by 20. Feldman said he has been unsuccessful in his efforts to get the university to provide specifics on these numbers.

Getting a handle on the fiscal impact of the latest enrollment declines is difficult. A request to the UW System for an overall estimate was met with the response that officials are “working on it.”

At Oshkosh the lower-than-expected enrollment suggests that the university would need to find almost $700,000 in additional cost reductions, with most of them likely based on personnel expenditures, which make up most of the school’s budget. This estimate is derived by multiplying the 90 fewer-than-expected students on campus by $7,622, which is the annual tuition rate for Wisconsin residents attending full time.

But a recent report from the UWO Finance and Administration Office paints a more positive picture of the school’s finances than what has been presented to faculty and staff.

In the fiscal year that ended June 30, before the increase in teaching loads were imposed, the university took in $4.2 million more than it spent, according to a report dated Oct. 7. This net gain came after setting aside $8.1 million to cover what’s called the “tuition shortfall,” the amount that is paid back to the UW System when a school does not meet its enrollment target.

“While we have made progress on the financial recovery plan, this has not created any central flexibilities,” according to a footnote in the report. In the previous fiscal year, the school was in the red by about $30,000, according to the report.

Leavitt remains optimistic about the future. He said faculty and staff at all three of Oshkosh’s campuses “are planning for how we can better share our story of access and opportunity to adult learners, retool and expand online offerings and continue inspiring students who hail from out-of-state to become Titans.”

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