His View: University, Moscow need to Prepare for Enrollment Cliff

My OpEd ran in today’s Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Enjoy! 

The decline of the University of Idaho over the last fifteen years has been a train wreck in slow motion. In his UI “Vision 2020,” then president Duane Nells predicted in 2013 that UI state-wide enrollment would be 16,000 by the year 2020. Now, in February 2020, the reality is far less promising.

According to the Idaho State Board of Education, over the last nine years the UI has suffered a 9% decrease in enrollment but a 28% increase in staff, particularly managerial and professional staff. The results are unsurprising. While the six-year graduation rate is stuck at 55%, the UI increased tuition by over 105% (well above the 29% inflation rate).

Yet career academicians cannot figure out why enrollment is declining. According to the Daily News (UI enrollment drops 2.6 percent) “the UI plans to look into the reasoning behind the decrease in the coming weeks.” However, The Spokesman Review reported “the university needs more money from the state to stay afloat.” This seems to mean hiring yet more staff, since UI clearly believes in bettering education through administration.

Normally, universities hire career academicians to run the system. I am grateful that the Idaho State Board of Education made the non-conventional move to hire Scott Green to be the most recent UI president.

A UI president must manage the university as a large city. Not only does he oversee the influx of the staff and professors, but also runs steam plants, water systems, and utilities; manages buildings and facilities including food and housing; administers remote campuses and distance learning students; and the list goes on.

The UI president manages a large budget ($192 million) that well surpasses those of cities (Moscow’s is $102 million and Pullman’s $133 million), as well as an enormous workforce. The UI has 2,651 employees, rivaling even large corporations (SEL has about 2,300 employees in Pullman).

Yet despite years of enrollment decline, the university still drops money at as fast a rate as ever. There was an attempt to cover up the low enrollment numbers by counting 2,000 high school students as college students in the Fall 2017. However, high schoolers only pay $75/credit-hour, not the full tuition of $415/credit-hour of other undergraduates. So, while the UI enrollment numbers looked relatively healthy, they were hemorrhaging paying students.

And there is no indication that this downward trend in enrollment will turn around. Nation-wide college enrollment has declined every year since 2011 even though the number of available high school seniors has increased. Postsecondary enrollments are down over 2 million from a high of 18 million in 2011.

And now we are in the face of the coming “enrollment cliff.” As I mentioned in my 4 Sept 2019 Op-Ed (Higher Ed Needs to go Back to the Basics), the U.S. birthrate peaked in 2010 and has plummeted ever since, meaning the number of available college students will start tumbling in 2025.

In its long 16 December 2019 article (Washington, Idaho colleges bracing for ‘enrollment cliff’ in 2025), The Spokesman-Review revealed that this enrollment cliff is well known to Washington and Idaho colleges. But while The Spokesman-Review addressed this, I have seen no local discussion. What will the University of Idaho look like if local enrollment starts decreasing by 3% per year in 2025? How will this affect Moscow?

How can the UI prepare for enrollment numbers that are half of what they are today? With administrative staff growing ten times faster than tenured faculty, the first step should be to terminate them and their pet programs. This would include all new programs and positions created in the last twenty years.

Next, UI must re-evaluate its role as Idaho’s premiere research university. It needs to focus on its strengths: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Underwater Basket Weaving (UBW) programs distract from UI’s core mission and need to be eliminated. Let students who want an UBW degree attend Boise State or Idaho State. UI graduates should expect better.

Finally, Moscow needs to prepare for the impact of the inevitable educational-industrial complex bubble burst in 2025. What will Moscow and our local economy look like when the number of University of Idaho students is cut in half?

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