Some colleges in region are hit particularly hard as enrollment falls


St. John's College McDowell Hall is the third oldest academic building in continuous use in the country. (Mark Gail/Washington Post)
December 19, 2013

St. John’s College in Annapolis, a small academic community immersed in the great books of Western civilization, is getting smaller. Enrollment has sunk below a threshold the school routinely exceeds — 500 students — and is down 9 percent since 2010.

St. John’s is not alone.

Nationwide, higher education is in upheaval as the pool of prospective students and tuition dollars shrinks for many schools. A Washington Post analysis of fall enrollment at about 80 colleges and universities in Maryland, Virginia and the District found 20 with declines of more than 5 percent since 2010. Some were down more than 10 percent.

The contraction has hit historically black universities, liberal arts schools, women’s colleges and others with distinctive niches. It is forcing colleges to intensify their marketing and in some cases rethink tuition and financial aid policies in a quest to survive an increasingly tough market. Every prospective student, especially ­every one able to pay college bills, is being wooed intensively.

“The competition is fierce,” said Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John’s in Annapolis. “I’ve never seen it more fierce, frankly, than the last couple of years. Now we have to keep our eyes on the ball very closely.”

Ups and downs: View fall 2013 enrollment data for more than 80 colleges and universities in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

Colleges could see the enrollment strain coming in demographic trends that predicted a national dip in students graduating from high school and in ­precedents suggesting that fewer people seek higher education when the economy is recovering from recession. But other factors, including unusual consumer sensitivity to rising tuition, have quickly amplified the challenge.

For institutions rooted in decades — or centuries — of tradition, making nimble pivots is not easy. The enrollment strain puts that on public display.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and ­Colleges reports that nearly half of schools it surveyed recently fell short of enrollment and tuition revenue goals. Some fell far short.

“A lot of institutions are having serious conversations about their business model,” said Susan W. Johnston, the association’s executive vice president. The topics: “Where is there market potential for us? What can we do that the institution down the road is not already doing? How do you get your message out in a way that strikes a chord with the kind of students you want to enroll?”

St. John’s, a private college with annual tuition and fees of about $46,000, is in solid financial condition, Nelson said. He said his 490-student campus has lost a fair number of graduate students, but its undergraduate total of 441 is within the target range for a school devoted to intimate study of authors from Homer to Freud.

Nelson said St. John’s is raising money to hedge against fluctuations in tuition revenue. This year, the college also began offering prospective students discounts not based on financial need. “Merit aid,” as it is known, is a strategy to lure those whose families can afford the full price.

The Post analyzed fall enrollment data — counting full-time, part-time, graduate and undergraduate students — from schools, state higher education agencies and the federal government. The review covered four-year public schools and private, nonprofit schools.

Some had strong growth.

Liberty University, an evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., has 77,338 students. Fuel­ed by a boom in online education, its head count is up 37 percent since 2010. Among public universities, Radford in Virginia grew 10 percent in that time, to 9,928, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County grew 8 percent, to 13,908.

Decliners, though, stood out. Fifty of the 80 schools analyzed have fewer students than they did a year ago.

Enrollment at the University of Maryland University College, a public online school, fell 6 percent in the past year, to 39,557. (The total does not count the school’s large overseas operation.) UMUC President Javier Miyares said the government shutdown and other federal spending cuts hurt his recruiting because the school typically draws many students from federal agencies and contractors. UMUC’s head count is about what it was in 2010.

At the Corcoran College of Art and Design in the District, enrollment is down 26 percent over three years, to 554 students. The college attributes the drop to “many academic trends, including the economic downturn and decreases in financial aid,” spokeswoman Rachel Cothran said.

She said the college, integrated with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, will continue to emphasize its unique qualities. “The Corcoran is one of the last ‘museum-schools’ in the country,” Cothran said. “Benefits afforded to students because of this are endless.”

Similar refrains are heard from schools everywhere that face questions about sliding student head counts. Educators are counting on the resilience of their brands. But they also know that their schools must adapt to tumult within various sectors of higher education.

Liberal arts schools. The enrollment troubles at public St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which is about 8 percent smaller than it was in 2010, are well known. But the University of Mary Washington, a similar public college in Fredericksburg, Va., has shrunk almost as much. Its head count is 4,831, down 7 percent since 2010.

Much of the decline is in out-of-state enrollment — a pattern the school is eager to reverse because non-Virginians pay higher tuition.

Like many schools, Mary Washington is seeking to dispel perceptions that a liberal arts degree is not a ticket to a good job. “We like to emphasize especially the strong communication and critical think­ing skills we give our students,” Jonathan Levin, the university’s provost, said. On billboards along Interstate 95, in Northern Virginia malls and on Montgomery County buses, the school advertises itself as a place “where great minds get to work.”

At the University of Richmond, enrollment fell 6 percent over three years, to 4,130. But university President Edward L. Ayers said the decline reflected an unusually large entering class in fall 2009 and changes in programs at a school for professional and continuing studies. The undergraduate core at the selective private university, he said, remains “very strong.”

But some liberal arts schools face questions about viability. At Virginia Intermont College in Bristol, enrollment fell 35 percent over three years, to 378. That has led to speculation the private college is seeking a merger. A college spokeswoman, Ann Yungmeyer, declined to comment.

Historically black universities. At Howard University in the District, enrollment rebounded partially in the fall after a sharp decline in 2012. But the head count has fallen at Morgan State and Coppin State in Baltimore, the University of the District of Columbia, the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Hampton University and Norfolk State.

Many historically black colleges and universities, known as ­HBCUs, had enrollment drops after the federal government tightened standards for lending to parents in late 2011. Parent loans are a major source of funding for ­HBCUs and other schools that serve a large number of students in financial need.

But that’s not the only reason HBCU numbers are down. Hampton spokeswoman Yuri R. Milligan said the private school’s enrollment decline of 12 percent since 2010 is the result of “a conscious decision” officials made five years ago to reduce the student-faculty ratio. Milligan said the university, which has 4,623 students, is aiming for enrollment ranging from its current size to 5,000.

Juliette B. Bell, president of the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, said the public university recently raised admission standards, leading to smaller freshman classes. Bell, president since July 2012, said UMES sought to offset the shrinkage by recruiting more transfer students and improving student retention. But the head count is off 7 percent over three years, falling to 4,220. The school wants to grow to 6,000, Bell said: “We did not intend for our enrollment to go down.”

Women’s colleges. Single­gender schools have long faced financial concerns. In Virginia, a private school once named Randolph-Macon Woman’s College was opened to men in 2007. Randolph College in Lynchburg, as it is now known, has grown 30 percent since 2010, to 683 students.

Many women’s colleges are sticking with their mission despite enrollment pressures. Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore has 2,877 students, down nearly 4 percent over three years. Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., has 1,739 students, down 6 percent. Sweet Briar College in Amherst County has 710, down 7 percent. Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., has 750, down 27 percent.

Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Hollins, said the university’s smaller size is partly by design. She said that the number of first-year students is up this fall and that the university is emphasizing preparation for careers through internships, study abroad, research and leadership experiences. “We’re moving in a positive direction,” Niles said.

Jo Ellen Parker, president of Sweet Briar, said the college is seeking to cut costs and sharpen its focus. There’s no more volleyball team. The school’s Italian major is gone, and German is on the way out. Parker said the school will highlight what makes it distinctive — an engineering science degree, for instance, as well as equestrian programs and a close-knit residential community that recently added housing for honors students.

Parker said Sweet Briar is tracking more closely than ever exactly what prospective, entering and current students want from college. Delivering on those desires, she believes, will grow enrollment.

“The goal is to keep us as well informed as we can be about what today’s students really value — what they are looking for,” Parker said.

A former Post education editor, Nick writes about college from the perspective of a father of three who will soon be buried in tuition bills.
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