Fall enrollment slips to four-year low

By Senah Yeboah-Sampong

Columbia’s enrollment is down by 842 students for the fall 2012 semester, according to figures posted by the administration. The 7.2 percent drop over last year could cost the college nearly $17 million in tuition and other fees.

The enrollment data was posted on the college’s interactive reporting tool Sept. 13 and confirmed by two high-ranking college officials, although college spokeswoman Diane Doyne said the headcount needs to be reconfirmed.

“Fall [2012] enrollment data is currently being reviewed,” she told The Chronicle on September 14.

Columbia’s enrollment decline, surpassing the 297- student falloff from 2010–2011, is in part due to approximately 310 former students who were not allowed to register because they failed to meet federal guidelines for Satisfactory Academic Performance, according to Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs.

This is nearly four times greater than the number of students whose registration was put on hold for academic reasons last fall, though more stringent

federal rules did not kick in until this year.

Similarly, 255 returning sophomores were unable to register because of a financial hold, compared to 185 in 2011, Kelly said. It is not known how many juniors and seniors could not register because of financial holds.

Student debt and the accelerated monitoring of students’ academic progress have led to “a dramatic increase in students who cannot return,” said Kelly, who stressed that these numbers always change from year to year.

Columbia’s compliance with federal SAP policy, which determines grant and loan eligibility, means that students have less time to improve their academic performance before being placed on hold, according to Elizabeth Herr, director of Enrollment Management Research.

Prior to the enactment of the federal policy in July 2011, Columbia’s failing students had three terms of probation before the possibility of dismissal.

The probationary period is down to one semester after a student’s GPA fall below a 2.00. No student can be “grandfathered under old policies,” according to the student handbook. Of the 390 students flagged by SAP in the 2011–2012 school year 87 have successfully appealed their registration holds, Kelly said.

According to him, students whose education has been put on hold often leave with debt and non-transferable credit as a result.

The college administration declined to discuss what the estimated $16,849,800 loss of tuition means for the future, but sentiment  is  building  for the school to become more selective in its admissions policies.

The question of how to prevent further decline was raised at the Provost’s Forum on Sept. 6.

“We’re looking at how we admit students,” said forum moderator Louise Love, interim provost and vice president of Academic Affairs. “Now we have the idea that we want to be an inclusive institution, but we’re seeing there are students who, whether financially, academically or otherwise, are not going to make it. Is it generous to admit them to this place? Probably not.”

The change in SAP policy  hit continuing students harder than expected, she said.

Factors in the registration status of the other 227 students who had neither academic nor financial holds are less concrete.

The forum was a venue for faculty to learn about various administrative initiatives,  enrollment and retention, and their possible impact on the college’s finances.

Enrollment is down about 300 students lower than where the college budgeted, according to Love.  Columbia has moved from an all-time high of 12,464 students in 2008 to 10,783 now.

“Since we’ve been having enrollment reductions and we’re very tuition-driven, we’ve been managing ahead of any financial trouble,” she said, regarding how the college would be able to provide 3 percent raises to the majority of staff and faculty despite that reduction.

Savings have come in the form of cut programs, reduction in part-time faculty class assignments and staff reductions. Spending less on food, travel and self-entertainment also helped, Love said.

Discussion eventually turned to the China Initiative that sent members of Columbia’s administration overseas to develop relationships with Chinese arts and media institutions. Central China Normal University offered full scholarships for students to attend this fall to study Chinese language and culture.

“We are transforming to become a national institution and we are becoming an international institution,” Love said. “We have to kind of own that.”

When talk ultimately turned back to domestic recruitment, Kelly explained how the college metes out academic standing prior to enrollment and what that meant

for students.

According to Kelly, the college ranks incoming students on a descending scale from six to one based on academic performance.

“Last fall, 180 students entered who were [ranked] ones, so they had a weak high school academic performance,” he said. “At the end of one year, going into this fall, our retention rate of those students is 37 percent.”

The lowest-ranked students came in with no aid and are leaving with debt to Columbia, Kelly added.

Kelly said it was less of a risk to give college a try 20 years ago because there was no penalty to the student or college, but now is not the case.

“We have to remember what we’re seeing is the dismembering of access and opportunity to an education.”

Herr said possible factors of declining enrollment could be attributed to large graduating classes among other things.

“A lot of people graduated [in the spring], smaller classes are moving through and [we] had the change in SAP policy,” she said.

Love touched on an idea she said senior vice president Warren Chapman called “deferred admission” for accepted students “with guaranteed enrollment at Columbia if a student attends a community college.”

According to Kelly, The college remains committed to finding “the diamond in the rough” with evidence of solid academic standing,  noting the correlation between financial need and academic preparedness in predicting student outcomes.

However, he feels a more narrow admissions policy will put Columbia’s diverse student body, which it prides itself on, at risk.

“Does this threaten diversity?” he said. “Absolutely.”