Editor’s Note: Enrollment plummet proves need for administrative wake-up call


Enrollment plummet proves need for administrative wake-up call

By Editor-In-Chief

Columbia’s enrollment dropped for the seventh consecutive year, as reported in The Chronicle’s Front Page story. At 8,120 students—the decline began after 2008 when the college had 12,464—our enrollment is at its lowest since 1996, before some undergraduates were even born. 

This story has been written several times before. Presidents, provosts, financial officers and chairs annually share their thoughts about the college’s student headcount, and what will be done to attract and retain students. These comments are so predictable, in fact, that they demonstrate not only rote thinking but also a failure to respond quickly to critical situations. 

Year after year, consequences such as layoffs, program cancellations, department alterations, and the elimination of popular Columbia attractions have crippled the academic experience because of enrollment-related budget cuts. In the meantime, the number of administrators and the funds allotted to them is stable or increased. Though a slightly higher retention rate makes it easy to disregard these issues, the inequities don’t go unnoticed by the current community. The diminished resources are still a likely factor contributing to a dwindling student body.

According to the college’s public reports for the 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, expenses for college administration have seen an approximate $4 million increase—$27.8 million to $31.3 million—while academic departments saw a decrease of about $10 million—$82.3 million to $71.7 million. 

The announcement follows 2015’s fall enrollment figures that, according to Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden, showed promise of a “turnaround point,” as reported Sept. 28, 2015, by The Chronicle. 

Outside factors that contributed to enrollment decline state or nation-wide include financial issues as well as funding issues that arose from the Illinois budget impasse and the halt of the state’s MAP grants. Wearden attributes our decline to these outside forces as well as other issues that affect the college  every year. 

When asked about factors specific to this year, he was stumped, adding that nothing significantly “bad has happened” at Columbia recently to contribute to the decline. Contrary to his remarks, Columbia’s issues right now run deeper than national or state trends.

The continually troubling numbers should be a sign to Columbia’s top decision-makers: Whatever enrollment plan you think—or say—is working, is not. It’s time to start over.

In order to stop Columbia from its downward spiral, the administration needs to show legitimate commitment. This commitment needs to be conveyed monetarily, authentically, and with educational value as top priority.

There should be a proper ratio of administrative members to the amount of students. That number of college employees—as well as their salaries—should grow when the student body grows, not when it diminishes. Departments shouldn’t be the only units making cuts, administrative offices should as well. Instead of only laying off low-level staff members, the top should face comparable cuts. While this would not be an effective strategy if those offices were reaching target enrollment, there is no reason the suffering should be one-sided. Recruitment and retention issues are not the fault of Columbia’s current student body.

However, students could be vital resources for necessary changes in recruitment. Focus groups that foster candor and respect and reporting results to higher-ups could potentially fill the gaps in current strategies. Using feedback to create a bridge to the group Columbia desperately wants to come to or stay at the college would be invaluable.

Long-term enrollment issues are stressful and this should not be a time of blame, but accountability. The entire college community needs to work, celebrate victories and suffer shortfalls together in order to actually turn figures around.