Wednesday, December 11, 2019

UW Oshkosh to offer early retirement to up to 300 employees as enrollment falls more than expected

Fewer students are transferring in and more are leaving after the first year, university officials said.

By Miles Maguire

UW Oshkosh is bracing for staff reductions and budget cuts as final enrollment numbers for this year have turned out to show a sharper decline than previously reported.

The school plans to offer retirement incentives for roughly 300 eligible workers at its three campuses while also taking another look at modifying academic programs to address low-enrollments and pushing for more online courses targeted at adult students.

“A final analysis of our fall 2019 student enrollment and retention data reveals declines more severe than those projected,” said Chancellor Andrew Leavitt in a campus email Dec. 9.

He went on to detail a five-part plan to address the situation, including stepped up efforts to recruit foreign students, a delay in rebuilding financial reserves and the “development of a new and visionary strategic plan.”

In October the university said it had enrolled the equivalent of 8,410 full-time students, against a target of 8,517. But the school said Monday that that actual size of the shortfall was 120 to 130, rather than the 107 originally estimated.

The increased shortfall brings the current year budget gap to $1.2 million, and the school is now projecting a $4.1 million budget gap for the fiscal year that begins July 2020, according to officials.

UWO administrators hope to cut expenses by encouraging longtime staffers to leave. Qualifying employees will be offered 50 percent of their annual pay to retire early.

“Our analysis suggests there are more than 300 employees across all three campuses who qualify based on developed criteria,” Leavitt said The voluntary retirement program “can help us dramatically lessen the potential budget reduction we face.”

The alternative could be a budget cut of up to 7.5% for fiscal 2021, Leavitt said.

Employment at UW Oshkosh was 1,655 as of fall 2018, according to the UW System website. The number of Oshkosh faculty members is 298, according to a report provided last week to the Board of Regents.

Despite the staff cutbacks, Leavitt said he hoped to expand program offerings, using a management methodology called “lean business” to eliminate inefficiency. 

“Our thinking and our approach cannot be ‘instead of,’” he said. “It must be ‘in addition to’ when it comes to traditional undergraduate resident programs,” according to Leavitt.

“Our greatest area for future enrollment growth will be in adult education,” he said in his email. “Among other things, this demands we commit to more and stronger online offerings.”

The university also plans to work harder on attracting foreign students and got the go-ahead from the Board of Regents last week to hire a firm called Kings Education to handle this recruitment.

The Oshkosh campus had 125 foreign students in 2015, but that number fell to 63 this semester. Kings Education has already been working for the Fox Cities campus in Menasha and has been highly successful over the last three years, boosting the number of foreign students from 22 to 135.

UWO expects to take in more than $1 million from this new effort and will incur no costs under its contract with Kings. The company will be compensated through fees it will charge to the students it recruits.

The university will also review academic programs that are not attracting enough students, but Leavitt said that the goal is not to make cuts. “This is not about eliminating programs; it’s about making all programs more impactful for our students and the region,” he said.

UWO has been successful on the front end of recruiting new students, but its enrollment has been hurt by not holding on to students or attracting transfers. “A reduction in retention and transfer students has added greater pressure on the decline and must be counteracted,” Leavitt said.

In 2018 the school had 816 transfer students, but that number fell to 670 this year, officials said. Its retention rate for first-year students was 77.4% in fall 2017, but that dropped to 73.5% in fall 2018.

The drop is enrollment is “just one of several pressures” facing UW Oshkosh, Leavitt said. He referenced “historic, state disinvestments” in public higher education as well as the ongoing tuition freeze.

For the current fiscal year, the legislature increased operating funds for the UW System by $74 million while cutting capital funds by $87.5 million.

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