Low enrollment, high hopes, cagey college

By Campus Editor

Despite a 5.6 percent decrease in enrollment from last fall, expected to cause an $11 million loss of revenue, Columbia’s administration remains optimistic about

its numbers.

In a Sept. 10 report posted on IRIS, a faculty web portal, by the Institutional Effectiveness office, a new department that tracks college data, 601 fewer students are enrolled this year than at this time  last year. Columbia’s total number of students fell from 10,774 to 10,173—a five-year low.  In releasing the data, the college withheld certain key information  relating to how selective the admission process was.

The report reflects enrollment up to the college’s Sept. 9 add-drop date but does not include students who withdrew during the week–long drop period, said Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs. According to Kelly, a full report with more accurate numbers will

be released Sept. 17. 

“These aren’t final numbers yet, but they are very close to what they will be,” Kelly said.

Royal Dawson, assistant vice president of Institutional Effectiveness, declined to comment on the issue of enrollment until the final report is released.

The cost of full-time undergraduate tuition at the college is $22,132 and approximately $11,066 for part-time students, according to the Student Financial Services’ website.  Using current statistics, the college is poised to lose approximately $11 million this year.

Kelly said that while the college recognizes enrollment’s impact on the budget, it would not admit students just for their wallets. 

“We’re not going to base our admission decisions on the budget because that suggests we’re going to accept students to make our budget issues easier, even though we think that student won’t be successful here,” Kelly said.

According to Kwang-Wu Kim, Columbia’s president and CEO, the college planned for the lost tuition in this year’s budget by anticipating the decreased enrollment.

Kelly said while the enrollment drop may seem like it has a negative impact on the college, it will actually stabilize enrollment.

“We’re going to see our freshman class start to grow and we’re going to see higher retention rates because they are better prepared and because they have more scholarship support,” Kelly said. “This will be the last year of falling enrollment.”

Despite the budget cuts and hiring freezes in almost every department, the college is funneling more money into the admissions department in hopes of attracting more students to the college, according to Kelly. The college increased recruitment and advertisement efforts, something that was needed because Columbia’s admissions office was underfunded, Kelly said.

Kelly said the investment in admissions has paid off because this fall’s freshman class is 6.2 percent larger than it was

last year. This will help bolster

next year’s enrollment because

the incoming class’ credentials promise higher retention rates, he said. 

As reported Sept. 3 by The Chronicle, this year’s freshman class has been described by the administration as the college’s most selective, with the student body having higher GPAs and standardized test scores than in the past.

But when the Chronicle requested figures related to that selectivity, such as how many students applied to Columbia this year and how many were accepted, which could demonstrate whether the school was becoming more selective, Kelly would not  release them, saying only that applications were up 17 percent. Data regarding the ratio of applicants to acceptances is commonly made public by most private U.S. colleges.

According to Kelly, 1,300 freshmen students are receiving scholarship support this academic year; a 62.5 percent increase from last year’s 800 students, a fact that he said helped attract students.

“The college continues to become more affordable for our new students,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the large classes of 2006–2008 also factor into the enrollment drop. They were the largest classes Columbia has ever had, and now that they have graduated, the college is seeing the dip reflected in enrollment.

“We’re seeing the last year of [those huge classes graduating],” Kelly said. “There are more new students this year than seniors,

so that cycle of four years of falling enrollment will begin to

flatten out.”

According to data released by the office of Institutional Effectiveness, graduation rates saw a dramatic increase in the 2007–2008 academic year when the college awarded more than 2,200 degrees, an increase of 11.3 percent compared to the prior year.

Graduation rates have remained at an elevated rate, peaking at 2,463 degrees awarded during the 2010–2011 academic year, and have fallen at a rate parallel to the decline of the college’s enrollment.

According to the report, several departments saw dramatic decreases, such as a 17 percent decrease in Photography, a 12.8 percent in Journalism, a 9.2 percent decrease in Art & Design and an 8.1 percent decrease in Arts, Entertainment & Media Management. The only department to see a noticeable increase is the Theatre Department by 6 percent. 

Philippe Ravanas, chair of the Arts, Entertainment & Media Management Department, said the enrollment figures track majors but not students taking classes within the department. His department saw an 8.1 percent decrease in major enrollment.

Tim Cozzens, chair of the Art & Design Department, said he would not comment on falling enrollment numbers because he had yet to

see the report. Cozzens’ department saw one of the most significant drops in enrollment at 9.2 percent, losing approximately 121 students. 

Cozzens is optimistic about the increase in this year’s freshman class, though.

Peter Fitzpatrick, chair of the Photography Department, did not return requests for comment after several attempts to reach him regarding his department’s 17 percent enrollment drop.

Paul Amandes, interim chair of the Theatre Department, attributes his department’s increase to the new comedy studies program, which, according to him, is unique in its design. He said it attracted many talented theater students.

“A lot of students came that weren’t your typical student,” Amandes said. “They could have gone to more prestigious institutions but those institutions don’t offer comedy programs.”

Despite the college’s highly touted transfer initiative, transfer enrollment exhibited a decrease in enrollment, dropping 25.7 percent from last year, according to the Institutional Effectiveness report.

“We’re becoming aggressively friendly to transfers,” Kelly said. “I’m confident we’re at the bottom of that number and we’re going to see that start to increase next year.”

Kelly said the decrease in transfer students could be attributed to the shifting definition of who qualifies as a transfer student. Freshman students with AP credit last year were considered transfers but are now counted as freshmen, according to Kelly.

Kelly said Columbia anticipates a modest increase next year because of the college’s transfer initiative, which will ease the process. The increased recruiting budget will  also help recruit more transfer students, he added.

According to Kelly, the admissions office is in the process of hiring a director of transfer recruitment and two transfer recruiters, despite the administration’s hiring freeze this year.

“We’re about to get out to community colleges aggressively both locally and nationally,” Kelly said.