Enrollment Decline Challenges a Private College

John Carroll's president announces $2.7 million in budget cuts to deal with a drop in students.
April 5, 2006

A decline of nearly 500 students over seven years wouldn’t faze admissions officers at the Ohio States and Kent States of the academic world. But that drop off has prompted a change at another Ohio institution, John Carroll University, a Roman Catholic institution in suburban Cleveland. 

Just months into his tenure as the university's president, the Rev. Robert Niehoff said late last month that John Carroll would need to shave at least $2.7 million from its $80 million budget over the next year.

The university’s gradual decline in enrollment -- from 4,473 students in fall 1998 to 4,009 in fall 2005 – has become even more visible this spring, when the university announced that about 8 percent of the first-year class had dropped out -- which is 3 percent more than the historical attrition rate.

Father Niehoff, who was traveling Tuesday and could not be reached for comment, has told faculty members and administrators that sinking enrollment has put the university in a precarious financial situation.

“This has not been an easy time for John Carroll,” the president wrote in the text of a speech delivered to university officials, faculty members and staff. “I know that there is anxiety and apprehension in our community.”

Some of that anxiety stems from Father Niehoff’s announcement that the university plans to save $800,000 by leaving open vacant faculty positions and not renewing some visiting faculty appointments. The president announced that additional cost cutting measures would include reducing staff and administrative positions. Also being considered is a plan to change the benefits package for staff and administrators hired after December 31, 2006. Payroll costs and related benefits make up 60 percent of the university’s total operating budget.

David La Guardia, the university's academic vice president, said that employees will still receive an expected raise in the coming fiscal year.

Ernest De Zolt, chairman of the Faculty Forum and associate professor of sociology, said faculty members “are respectfully concerned” with the cuts.

“From my understanding, there’s not a groundswell of anger,” he said. “There’s not a belief that [the administration] is undermining us. It’s a momentary situation in time that calls for positions to go unfilled.”

De Zolt said the loss of students is a product of the university not selling its academic strengths --  particularly philosophy, accounting and the sciences -- and the changing dynamics of the Ohio student population. He said the number of college-age students in the state has dwindled over the past few years, and many cannot afford John Carroll’s tuition, which will be more than $24,000 in the 2006-2007 academic year.

“We didn’t see these trends coming quickly enough or failed to react to them sufficiently,” De Zolt said. “For so many years this wasn’t a problem.” 

Charles Hickman, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education, an advocacy and service group that represents 25 colleges and universities, including John Carroll, said the university isn’t alone in its enrollment troubles. Many universities that focus on full-time undergraduate students -- not adult education and satellite campuses -- are seeing a decline in enrollment, he said.

Brain drain in Ohio and a struggling state economy are other factors, Hickman said. Total enrollment among the council's 25 member universities decreased by about 2 percent from fall 1993 to fall 2002 -- although full-time undergraduate totals rose by 6 percent, he said. One of the group's members -- Case Western Reserve University -- has had highly publicized financial and other troubles that led to the resignation last month of its president, Edward M. Hundert.

C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, which represents 52 independent colleges, insists that private colleges in Ohio are not struggling generally.

Jones cites figures released by his association's members that show an overall rise in enrollment in each of the last five years -- and as much as 3.7 percent in one of the years. John Carroll, he said, is an anomaly.

Another factor in John Carroll's financial equation is a multi-million-dollar center for sciences and technology that opened three years ago. The university is repaying loans used to finance the center and is waiting to receive outstanding private donations that were pledged.

Jones said he is confident that John Carroll can meet its financial goal. “This kind of budget cutting, when needed, is something private institutions can and usually do accomplish,” he said.

"We don't consider this to be anything different than what other universities in similar situations have done," La Guardia said.

Father Niehoff said the university would draw an additional $500,000 from the endowment for the 2007 fiscal year, but that financial aid to students wouldn't take a blow.

"We can’t afford for these budget cuts to reduce the mission and attractiveness of John Carroll," he told Crain's Cleveland Business.


Added Hickman: “Their issue of Jesuit mission comes into play. Clearly part of the institutional philosophy is to be inclusive and serve those who don’t have a dozen other choices.”


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