By Encarnacion Pyle
More Ohio public colleges are laying off employees, freezing travel and taking a harder look at academic programs as they shave millions of dollars from their budgets because of declining enrollment and funding.
Over the past several weeks, Youngstown State University, Shawnee State University and the University of Akron have all announced cuts to make up for larger-than-expected shortfalls.
“Schools used to be able to count on having a corner on the market in their regions,” said Jim Tressel, a former Ohio State University football coach who now is vice president for student success at the University of Akron. “But these are challenging times, and we have to assume that things will remain very difficult for many, many years yet.”
University of Akron trustees agreed last week to cut $12 million from the school’s budget, including laying off 18 staff members and not renewing the contracts of one professor and nine others after a 6 percent decline in fall enrollment.
After rapid enrollment growth following the 2007 economic meltdown, the number of students going to college in Ohio started to fall in 2012. Last year, statewide college enrollment dropped almost 6 percent, bringing many schools closer to their pre-recession levels. This year, enrollment fell 2 percent more, with several community colleges dropping in the double digits.
Ohio University had the largest growth among the state’s 13 traditional four-year universities with an enrollment increase of more than 4 percent.
Campus officials attribute the statewide drop to a decline in the number of high-school graduates, a record number of students pushing to graduate before their schools moved to semesters last year, and changes in federal financial aid. As the economy improves, more adults also are choosing to work instead of attending school.
Plus, the state schools have shifted their focus away from getting students in the door and toward helping them graduate. They’re trying to meet President Barack Obama’s goal of raising the nation’s college graduation rate to 60 percent by 2020.
“I like to think of it as a leveling off after some really steep growth,” said Karen Rafinski, the interim president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. Enrollment at the state’s public two-year schools grew by a combined 21 percent from fall 2010 to 2011.
Officials at Ohio University and Ohio State credit marketing, the growing reputations of their schools and efforts to keep costs down for their enrollment increases.
“We’re making very conscious efforts because students are doing more shopping around than they ever have before,” said Craig Cornell, OU’s vice provost for enrollment management.
Ohio State is focused on improving the school’s overall quality while trying to hold costs down.
“No student or parent has told me they want us to provide them access to a mediocre program,” Interim President Joseph A. Alutto said.
Both schools also are recruiting more out-of-state, international and transfer students, and are expanding their online offerings and in-demand programs.
Last year, Columbus State decreased its budget by $17 million after a switch to semesters led to a drop in students. The college’s enrollment dropped 4 percent this year, not enough to affect its budget, spokesman Will Kopp said.
“We budgeted for no growth, and that’s pretty much where we are at,” he said.
Last month, Youngstown State University announced it was cutting $6.6 million from its budget after having lost more than $20 million over the past three years because of enrollment declines and reductions in state funding. Enrollment dropped 3 percent this fall from last year. ‘Our priority was protecting our academic programs and our people,’ President Randy Dunn said.
To balance the budget, Youngstown State is: cutting five full-time and four part-time positions, none of which is for a professor; freezing all discretionary spending; and cutting back on technology improvements. The university also has hired an administrator to help it attract more students through more-targeted marketing.
The cuts at the University of Akron come on the heels of $25.5 million in reductions that were approved this summer. In total, UA officials estimate that about 150 positions have been or will be eliminated; most of them already were vacant because of attrition.
The university had expected some drop in students because this was the second year it had steered underprepared applicants to a community college to improve their retention and graduation rates.
Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio, lost about 6 percent of its students. As a result, the school cut $4million, which included the elimination of 13 positions.