Early signs suggest fall enrollment will be flat at KU; hiring restrictions loosened on campus

Signs of a big post-pandemic bounce-back in enrollment haven’t yet materialized at the University of Kansas, but early numbers are good enough that KU leaders are easing some spending restrictions.

In a message to the university community this week, three KU leaders said that fall 2021 enrollment on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses of KU is “trending flat compared to fall 2020.”

KU saw fall enrollment in 2020 drop by about 3% on its Lawrence campus compared to fall 2019 numbers, as the pandemic impacted university operations. On the much smaller Edwards Campus in Johnson County, enrollment was up about 4% in 2020.

University leaders have hoped to see enrollment growth as many of the pandemic restrictions on in-person classes, events and other university traditions have been lifted. However, it has been uncertain if or how much enrollment would bounce back after the pandemic, as the job market has heated up, which often has depressed enrollment at universities.

However, even if enrollment on the Lawrence campus holds steady from 2020 totals, that would be a bit of a victory for KU. The Lawrence campus has posted declining fall enrollment every year since 2017.

In their message to the KU community, Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt and Vice Chancellor for Finance Jason Hornberger labeled the enrollment trend a “limitation” KU was facing in the current budget year. However, they said it wasn’t enough of a limitation to prevent KU from loosening some of the spending restrictions that it implemented during the pandemic.

“Even with these limitations, because of your collective fiscal discipline in (fiscal year 2021) and rigorous budget planning for (fiscal year 2022) we have some good news to share with you,” they wrote.

KU is lifting a limited hiring freeze that has been in place since the early days of the pandemic, and university departments won’t be required to send back any excess revenues they have collected during the year to the general university fund. Instead, departments will be able to keep unbudgeted revenues to be used for departmental needs.

Departments also will be able to get back to more normal hiring practices. In April 2020, KU implemented a “strategic hiring freeze” that impacted the ability of some departments to fill some positions. The hiring freeze included multiple exceptions for positions critical to safety, research, education, business functions and health care. However, the hiring freeze also required additional layers of approval before positions could be filled.

With the lifting of the hiring freeze, department leaders now will have more freedom to fill positions as they had done prior to the pandemic.

The recent update did not provide any predictions for how many positions may be added to KU’s payroll. An analysis of payroll data by the Journal-World in April — one year after the freeze was implemented — showed that KU had about 1,200 fewer employees on its payroll in April 2021 than it did in April 2020.


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