Editorial: WKU ignoring recent enrollment trends

THE ISSUE: This semester, WKU experienced a 3.2 percent drop in enrollment from fall 2012, amounting to 668 fewer students and a $1.6 million budget shortfall.

OUR STANCE: In an editorial published earlier this semester entitled “Full steam ahead: WKU may be outgrowing itself,” the Herald stated that WKU would find it difficult to continue pursuing its policies of expansion. Well, that difficulty now seems like an impossibility, as this $1.6 million hole is just the beginning of what is likely to be another shortfall in the spring.

WKU overplayed its hand.

We’ll spare you the “I-told-you-so’s” about how the Herald saw the possibility for such an oversight and instead focus on the road ahead.

Roughly $1.6 million just disappeared from the WKU budget.

This shortfall comes as the university plans to begin construction on its future Honors College and International Center and announces plans to pull the plug on Thompson Complex North Wing, removing all classes and offices from the building next semester as a part of a desired capital project to restructure the complex, which entails razing the current planetarium and erecting a new building in its stead.

These kinds of projects are certainly not free, and it doesn’t even take a college-educated student to do the math — WKU has outgrown itself.

Originally, WKU thought it would make up for a predicted 300-student drop in enrollment this semester by enrolling more out-of-state and international students who pay higher tuition.

However, the decrease in enrollment was more dramatic than expected, leaving WKU to rethink its strategy and to write a few thank you notes to the ever-growing number of Chinese and Saudi Arabian students in the U.S., up 21 percent and 30 percent respectively nationwide for the 2012-2013 academic year, according to the Institute of International Education and the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

Combine this with the fact that Kentucky’s funding of postsecondary education is less and less each year, and it’s easy to see just how unstable the financial situation is. What happens if those international students go elsewhere? What happens if those out of state students don’t feel like paying much higher tuition without any real incentives? WKU is on thin ice.

And things are only going to get worse.

Every spring, enrollment drops significantly from the fall as students drop out of school.

If WKU can’t retain more students than usual this spring, expect to see a budget cut similar to that of last spring, when the university axed more than $2 million worth out of its budget.

Maybe the boost in the average freshman ACT score as part of the university’s higher admission standards will mean a better retention rate from the fall to the spring, a transition that usually equates to loss.

The Herald is skeptical of this scenario as a possible outcome, though, as this heightened average ACT is, frankly, less than a point and only applies to freshman students instead of the entire student body that could leave WKU this winter.

So who is going to pay for this? Well, very likely the students, faculty and staff who call WKU home.

Last semester’s budget cut came as a result of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education capping the maximum tuition rate hike for public universities at 3 percent — 2 percentage points lower than WKU planned on raising it.

Unless the CPE takes similar action next semester, the costs of having fewer students and the need to pay for new buildings could mean WKU seeks a tuition hike much higher than 3 percent.

Layoffs to faculty and staff are a possibility. Everybody will pay the price.

Yes, life at WKU has changed dramatically for the better and its brand is growing outside Kentucky.

But that doesn’t mean it was ready to see a decrease in enrollment this size as it continues, some might say blindly, marching toward establishing an ever larger national profile.

This editorial represents the majority of the Herald’s 9-member editorial board.