Opinion: U.S. universities facing new enrollment challenges

September 7, 2013


Fall enrollment totals for Kansas University and the other Kansas Board of Regents universities will not be released for some time, but, based on recent news stories, it’s possible there may be a slight drop in KU’s numbers.

According to a recent U.S. Census report, the number of students seeking college degrees of all sorts fell last year for the first time since 2006, reversing a pattern of growth since 1978. Will this trend continue?

Nationally, undergraduate and graduate school enrollment fell about 500,000 to 19.9 million students in 2012, according to the annual Census report. Some observers say drops of close to 2 percent a year are becoming the norm at many major state-aided universities.

Part of this drop in university enrollment can be attributed to the economy, higher tuition costs and the fiscal debts incurred by students (and their parents), who often are required to spend five, six or more years to receive their degrees.

Also, community colleges and vocational-technical schools are siphoning off many students who find they can obtain training and education that lead to good job offers with good salaries while incurring far less financial debt. They also are able to complete programs considerably quicker than on the traditional college degree path.

Another factor may be the increasing number of news stories and reports asking whether a college degree is as critical as was thought in years past if a young man or woman hoped to enjoy a happy and fulfilling lifestyle and career.

Likewise, the growth of online courses being offered by top, nationally ranked colleges and universities — and the steadily increasing number of students taking advantage of online courses — is likely to reduce the number of students, particularly at the freshman and sophomore levels.

This possibility also raises the question of whether shrinking enrollments will leave colleges and universities with many unused or unneeded buildings. Are college executives, regents, state legislators and taxpayers giving much thought to what might happen at a school such as KU if freshman enrollment, or total enrollment, takes a significant drop?

KU officials have been working to figure out a way to allow far more students to complete their degrees in four years. They have put together a new curriculum that they believe will result in students getting through school more quickly and easily, although a significant number of critics have said such an approach results in dumbing down the curriculum by making it softer and less demanding.

How many incoming students arrive on Mount Oread giving serious thought to signing up for courses in the hard sciences, such as engineering, chemistry, health sciences, mathematics, physics, etc. — courses that are considered hard and demanding? Or are the majority of incoming students trying to skirt such subjects, opting for softer, easier courses that may increase their chances of a higher grade-point average?

Do university advisers working with new students stress the point that, generally speaking, difficult and demanding courses come with a higher reward following graduation than the soft, less demanding courses?

Unfortunately, for far too many years, KU had the reputation of having an elitist attitude toward recruiting and/or welcoming new students. In the past several years, however, more attention has been given to recruiting and encouraging students to consider KU. This efforts needs to be sustained — better yet, strengthened — as competition for the better high school graduates and those seeking graduate degrees becomes more intense.

At this time, there is no way of knowing the impact of President Obama’s desire to inject the federal government more deeply into higher education by identifying universities his administration believes are doing the best job of providing a solid educational environment at a reasonable price.

It’s hoped this year’s incoming freshman class at KU is the best yet and that advisers, counselors, teachers and administrators will do the best job ever in encouraging these young men and women to maximize their potential.

The level of excellence of students, faculty and administrators is sure to make the difference between those universities that grow and excel and those that merely drift with the tide. The competition is too tough for anyone associated with KU, in student recruitment or ANY other area of the school, to be complacent.

The best advertisement for any university is the quality of its students, the record of those student after graduation and the excellence of its faculty. All this requires visionary, impassioned leadership that inspires students, teachers and alumni.


Charles L. Bloss, Jr. 4 years, 9 months ago

I did not go to college. I pursued a career that required 5 weeks of training (at the time, that has doubled now), the rest was on the job training. I was able to do what I always wanted to do, and help people at the same time. I worked at it for 30 years, and I have no regrets. There are many other technical jobs that one can pursue, have a great career doing what they want to do, and make a good living. A college degree, and it's huge tuition costs, are not required as much as in the past. One can get a college degree in the same career path I chose, but it is not always required. People are waking up to these choices, which may be why college enrollment may be decreasing. I urge young people to look at all the choices, and their costs, before committing themselves to huge tuition costs, and debt.

Bob_Keeshan 4 years, 9 months ago

"Or are the majority of incoming students trying to skirt such subjects, opting for softer, easier courses that may increase their chances of a higher grade-point average?"

Only the Journalism majors can get away with that.

yourworstnightmare 4 years, 9 months ago

Again, Mr. Simons correctly identifies a problem but fails to realize its true cause: the policies of right wing GOP politicians whom Mr. Simons supports.

Mr Simons, the hammer hitting you on the head is being held in your own hand.

Carol Bowen 4 years, 9 months ago

Too soon old. Too late smart. If we are looking for students interested in math and science, that needs to start in high school at the very latest.

ENVIROPEACE 4 years, 9 months ago

So, Governor Brownback does a tour of the Kansas Board of Regents universities, telling each one of them that he absolutely won't raise their taxes... Shortly after he raises their taxes, consequently the universities raise their tuition. Coincidence, I think not...

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