Experts: Enrollment decline, tuition increase is ‘vicious circle’

By Andrea Salcedo, Campus Editor

Alexander Aghayere
Experts: Enrollment decline, tuition increase is ‘vicious circle’

After President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim recently announced a 4 percent tuition increase for the 2017–2018 academic year, higher education experts said they were concerned about the college’s financial state and stability.

As reported Nov. 21 by The Chronicle, Kim announced in a Nov. 15 collegewide email that full-time tuition will increase by $990, totaling $25,580 per academic year.

In the same email, Kim announced a new $150 technology fee for students taking six or more credits, starting in the Spring 2017 Semester, which he said will be used to update and improve technology at the college, such as wired and wireless networking, digital learning, classroom technology and other collegewide needs.

During the Spring 2016 Semester, as reported Feb. 15 by The Chronicle, Kim announced a 4 percent tuition increase of $950 for the 2016–2017 academic year, raising tuition to $24,590 per academic year. 

Richard Vedder, director for the Center of College Affordability and Productivity and economics professor at Ohio University, said he considered the 4 percent tuition increase for the 2017–2018 academic year “aggressive” and “dubious,” but not an outlier considering tuition increase trends in higher education.

Vedder said although both increases were announced early—the most recent announcement coming four months earlier in the academic year than the 2016-2017 announcement—the college still announced the increases during separate academic years.  He said he considered the practice unusual.

For Vedder, higher education institutions with more prominent programs like Northwestern University and the University of Chicago could more easily justify tuition increases than colleges like Columbia, which he added have a “marginal academic reputation.”

“[Colleges] like [Columbia] are—I don’t want to say on a deathwatch—but some are already in intensive care and others are getting close,” Vedder said.

Jonathan Levert, junior cinema art + science major and Student Government Association representative to the board of trustees, said he was not surprised by the tuition increase because higher education institutions are businesses but added he understands why some students are upset about having to pay more especially without the assistance of Monetary Award Program Grants, which have not been funded during Illinois’ budget impasse.

“It can feel pretty tough for a lot of students,” Levert said. “I get the frustration, but at the same time, I get the increases, and for a school like Columbia, which unfortunately doesn’t have an endowment in the billions like Northwestern University [and] the University of Chicago, the school does need income to put back into its resources [and] programs.”

Before the tuition increase was announced, the college’s enrollment reached a 20-year-low, as reported Oct. 3 by The Chronicle. Enrollment dropped 9.4 percent from the 8,961 students enrolled in the Fall 2015 Semester to 8,120 students in the Fall 2016 Semester.

Ray Franke, associate professor of higher education in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, said Columbia is not alone in facing a continuing enrollment drop because many higher education institutions across the country are facing the same issue.

The number of administration positions has increased nationwide because colleges now have to comply with federal and state regulations that require more administrative personnel, Franke added.

In a Nov. 2 interview with The Chronicle, Kim said cutting down administrative positions is not a viable option.

“The school [student body] is shrinking, but a lot of the administrative positions have to be here,” Kim said.

Franke said Kim’s stance on keeping administrative positions at the college despite the continuing eight-year enrollment drop will have to be reconsidered at some point.

“If you’re shrinking and shrinking, of course your structure has to adjust,” Franke said. “At some point, you have to think about the administrative side, and whether the numbers you’re employing are still appropriate for students.”

According to a Nov. 22 emailed statement sent to The Chronicle from college spokeswoman Anjali Julka, the college’s decision to increase tuition was focused on balancing attendance costs while meeting the rising operation costs of the college.

“Columbia is not alone in this regard,” the emailed stated. “Other, similar institutions of higher education across the country have had to do the same. However, we continue to explore different ways to generate funds and reduce costs. Our goal is that students experience a quality education in a creative, diverse and effective environment.”

Kim and Bill Wolf, chairman of the board of trustees, declined to comment after numerous attempts by The Chronicle.

According to Vedder, the college should start rethinking its strategy for increasing enrollment and begin implementing alternative options such as reducing tuition, offering new and cheaper programs, promoting online education programs or pushing for a tuition freeze.

As reported April 27, 2015, by The Chronicle, former Vice President of Business Affairs and CFO Michelle Gates said that although public colleges have been able to implement tuition freezes, Columbia does not have the funds to cover these costs.  Gates added that a tuition freeze at the college would cause higher costs for incoming students.

“Other institutions have found that they have a significant enrollment drop because students don’t want to come in,” Gates told The Chronicle during the height of the #SaveColumbia coalition—a faculty, staff and student-organized group who opposed  changes across the college such as the introduction of the Strategic Plan and the elimination of the “First-Year Seminar” course —in the Spring 2015 Semester. “I don’t think we’re in a good position to look at that until we stabilize enrollment, but we need to look at ways at how we keep the [tuition] cost down.”

Franke said the college is likely taking more funds from students currently at the college rather than gaining new funds from incoming students.

“It sounds like the administration is squeezing more money out of students that are not necessarily coming in right now in the numbers the institution would need,” Franke said.

Franke advised the college to reach out to populations who do not have a history of attending the college, continue signing agreements with two- or four-year institutions to increase the pipeline between them, and to share faculty, staff, and administrators with another institution to reduce costs.

“The better and more innovative you are in terms of finding solutions to [enrollment decline], the better your chances are of survival,” Franke said.

As for the college’s future, if enrollment continues to decline and tuition continues to increase, Vedder said he is not very optimistic that Columbia would keep its doors open. 

For Vedder, the college administration’s common practice of increasing tuition is causing them the loss of students.

“It sounds like a vicious circle,” Vedder said. “The more you increase tuition, the more enrollment drops and the more enrollment drops the less revenue coming in, which [makes the college raise tuition] and enrollment falls again.”