Columbia confronts financial reality, redirects for 2016

By Katy Nielsen

President Warrick L. Carter introduced Columbia’s new strategic plan, Focus 2016, on Sept. 27, aimed at improving student learning, increasing enrollment and strengthening the college’s finances.

The plan was unveiled at Stage Two, in the 618 S. Michigan Ave. Building.

Though it was Monday afternoon, the room was filled with more faculty, staff and administration than was expected.

Focus 2016 seeks to improve the quality of student education and work within the confines of a difficult financial situation. Columbia 2010, the strategic plan developed in 2004, had goals reflecting a more stable economic climate.

With difficult economic times, a shrinking budget and an increasingly competitive art, media and communication field, how does Columbia stay current and adopt new programs when funds are lacking?

“Everything comes down to finance,” Carter said. “Columbia 2010 was focused on the idea that money was going to be flowing into the college.”

Carter said it was assumed that enrollment would be high, and there would be new programs and more buildings in the South Loop. But in 2007, the economy collapsed and goals set in 2004 were no longer realistic, according to Carter. Despite the downward economy, Carter said most of the Columbia 2010 goals were met.

“The economy has changed the game plan for all of us,” Carter said. “What Focus 2016 does is create a plan in the realities of what we see happening today.”

Modest increases in tuition and enrollment, Carter said, are part of the college’s financial plan.

He also said improving student learning initiatives will hopefully bring more students to Columbia and keep them here. He said the goal is to keep classes current by adding new majors that reflect the real world and broaden education.

“We look at what is going on in television, radio and film,” Carter said. “The lines are blurred.”

This broader knowledge will help students in the future when they look for jobs in ever-changing media industries.

Carter said he also wants to remove concentrations with small populations, those with seven or eight students. The concentrations he wants to cut have not yet been identified.

“It doesn’t mean students will learn less, it probably means students will learn more,” Carter said.

In terms of student learning, there will be more focus put on community outreach programs, said Anne Foley, vice president of Planning and Compliance, who spoke after Carter.

This may involve working with elementary schools to create city artwork.

Classes are more exciting when they are relevant and connect students with the community, said Rose Economou, associate professor of journalism, who attended the meeting.

These new programs and outreach endeavors must coincide with Columbia’s economic confines, Carter said. Modernization of the curriculum requires funds, which means more students.

Recruitment, retention and building the college’s reputation are essential to increasing enrollment numbers, Carter said.

“We can’t have student learning if we don’t have students,” Carter said.

Columbia had 12,464 students in fall 2008. Now Columbia has 11,922 students, which means enrollment has decreased approximately 5 percent since 2008.

“We increase our enrollment through new demographics,” Carter said.

Part of the enrollment plan for Focus 2016 includes recruiting from different age groups rather than targeting the traditional college-ready age group.

“We have an opportunity to grow enrollment with adult learners,” Foley said.

She described adult learners as people more than 25 years old who work, cannot attend classes in the day and are often

looking to acquire new skills in their field.

She said adult learners are coming back to college in large numbers.

The idea is to benefit returning students and people going back to school because of a career change, Foley explained. This may involve online courses, and “it’s a big experiment.”

Out-of-state, international, transfer and adult students are the target enrollment demographics for Focus 2016, Foley said.

Finance, the third component of Focus 2016, includes keeping moderate student costs, growing the endowment and generating enough revenue for operations to continue and improve.

Carter said there will be modest tuition increases, but does not want to burden students with costs. This is a priority for Focus 2016.

Tuition increased 3 percent for the 2009-10 academic year. Next year’s tuition increase is yet to be determined.

Working toward a slight tuition increase and a moderate increase in enrollment, Carter said, is the historical way Columbia has been financed.

“If we are going to move ahead we’re all going to be out of our comfort zone,” Carter said. “We can’t be complacent. We’ve got to change. I need you all to take an active roll in Focus 2016.

The Student Government has met with Anne Foley to discuss Focus 2016. The Board of Trustees will meet in December to discuss the strategic plan.