Enrollment figures released Tuesday by the Kansas Board of Regents may finally be getting the attention of officials at Kansas University.
According to the regents, KU recorded an overall enrollment decline this fall of 2.5 percent compared with fall 2010. Enrollment actually increased by 2.3 percent at the KU Medical Center, but that was more than offset by a 3.1 percent decline at KU’s Lawrence campus and the Edwards Campus in Overland Park. The only other university to report an enrollment decline was Emporia State University, whose enrollment was down 4.6 percent.
To their credit, KU officials expressed concern at the enrollment figures. For a number of years, officials had seemed satisfied with enrollment figures that were rising and falling slightly from year to year, saying that flat enrollment was fine when the university was dealing with reduced financial resources.
On Tuesday, Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little was singing a different tune. “For KU to achieve its mission of educating leaders,” she said, “we need to reverse this decline.” She went on to say the university already was putting more emphasis on student recruitment and retention and has “undertaken initiatives to increase the number of students who come to KU ready to succeed.”
That’s one part of the equation. Another part is to find students who can afford to pay the ever-rising KU tuition rates. Is there any question that KU’s significant enrollment decline is at least partially a result of more than a decade of significant tuition increases? Year to year, KU almost always requests and gains approval for the largest tuition increases among state universities. At some point, it seems obvious that the increased tuition, along with additional course fees charged in every school except the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, was bound to have an impact on enrollment. KU officials talk about increased financial aid possibilities, but apparently those efforts aren’t making the difference for many students.
Concerns continue to be expressed around the state about how well KU recruits top students, compared with Kansas State and other schools. KU also seems to be lagging behind other state universities in accommodating non-traditional students through online and evening classes and programs. Even if those issues are more a matter of perception than reality, they deserve the attention of KU officials.
The regents’ enrollment report revealed a couple of other trends that may be a reflection of the current struggling economy and job market. The overall enrollment at state universities was up by just 0.7 percent. Such slow growth at the universities would seem to suggest that more students were attending community colleges for their first two years to cut costs. However, overall enrollment at the state’s 19 community colleges was down 0.2 percent.
Where was the biggest enrollment increase? At the state’s six vocational-technical schools, which saw a 7 percent increase. Apparently the value of a liberal arts education is losing ground to the simple desire of many Kansans to learn a skill or trade that will more directly increase their chances of finding a job — without leaving them with a hefty student-loan debt.
Many students, including many from Kansas, still want to attend a major research university like KU. Trying to make sure that students who come to KU are ready for the university’s academic challenges is fine, but it should be obvious to officials that the financial challenges of attending KU can be equally daunting for many prospective students.