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Enrollment drops push colleges down

Bianca Calin, left, leads a tour of St. Mary’s college in St. Mary’s, Md. Enrollment is about 8 percent lower than it was in 2010. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Bianca Calin, left, leads a tour of St. Mary’s college in St. Mary’s, Md. Enrollment is about 8 percent lower than it was in 2010. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

SANTA FE, N.M. — St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., a small academic community immersed in the great books of Western civilization, is getting smaller. Enrollment has sunk below a threshold the school routinely exceeds – 500 students – and is down 9 percent since 2010.

St. John’s is not alone.

Nationwide, higher education is in upheaval as the pool of prospective students and tuition dollars shrinks for many schools. A Washington Post analysis of fall enrollment at about 80 colleges and universities in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia found 20 with declines of more than 5 percent since 2010. Some were down more than 10 percent.

The contraction has hit historically black universities, liberal arts schools, women’s colleges and others with distinctive niches. It is forcing colleges to intensify their marketing and in some cases rethink tuition and financial aid policies in a quest to survive an increasingly tough market. Every prospective student, especially every one able to pay college bills, is being wooed intensively.

“The competition is fierce,” said Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College. “I’ve never seen it more fierce, frankly, than the last couple of years. Now we have to keep our eyes on the ball very closely.”

Colleges could see the enrollment strain coming in demographic trends that predicted a national dip in students graduating from high school and in precedents suggested that fewer people seek higher education when the economy is recovering from recession. But other factors, including unusual consumer sensitivity to rising tuition, have quickly amplified the challenge.

For institutions rooted in decades – or centuries – of tradition, making nimble pivots is not easy. The enrollment strain puts that on public display.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges reports that nearly half of schools it surveyed recently fell short of enrollment and tuition revenue goals. Some fell far short.

“A lot of institutions are having serious conversations about their business model,” said Susan Johnston, the association’s executive vice president. The topics: “Where is there market potential for us? What can we do that the institution down the road is not already doing? How do you get your message out in a way that strikes a chord with the kind of students you want to enroll?”

St. John’s, a private college with annual tuition and fees of about $46,000, is in solid financial condition, Nelson said. He said his 490-student campus has lost a fair number of graduate students, but its undergraduate total of 441 is within the target range for a school devoted to intimate study of authors from Homer to Freud.

Nelson said St. John’s is raising money to hedge against fluctuations in tuition revenue. This year, the college also began offering prospective students discounts not based on financial need. “Merit aid,” as it is known, is a strategy to lure those whose families can afford the full price.

The Washington Post analyzed fall enrollment data – counting full-time, part-time, graduate and undergraduate students – from schools, state higher education agencies and the federal government. The review covered four-year public schools and private, nonprofit schools.

Some had strong growth.

Liberty University, an evangelical Christian university in Lynchburg, Va., has 77,338 students. Fueled by a boom in online education, its head count is up 37 percent since 2010. Among public universities, Radford in Virginia grew 10 percent in that time, to 9,928, and the University of Maryland Baltimore County grew 8 percent, to 13,908.

Decliners, though, stood out. Fifty of the 80 schools analyzed have fewer students than they did a year ago.

Enrollment at the University of Maryland University College, a public online school, fell 6 percent in the past year, to 39,557. (The total does not count the school’s large overseas operation.) UMUC President Javier Miyares said the government shutdown and other federal spending cuts hurt his recruiting because the school typically draws many students from federal agencies and contractors. UMUC’s head count is about what it was in 2010.

At the Corcoran College of Art and Design in the District of Columbia, enrollment is down 26 percent over three years, to 554 students. The college attributes the drop to “many academic trends, including the economic downturn and decreases in financial aid,” spokeswoman Rachel Cothran said.

She said the college, integrated with the Corcoran Gallery of Art, will continue to emphasize its unique qualities. “The Corcoran is one of the last ‘museum-schools’ in the country,” Cothran said. “Benefits afforded to students because of this are endless.”

Similar refrains are heard from schools everywhere that face questions about sliding student head counts. Educators are counting on the resilience of their brands. But they also know that their schools must adapt to tumult within various sectors of higher education.

Liberal arts schools

The enrollment troubles at public St. Mary’s College of Maryland, which is about 8 percent smaller than in 2010, are well known. But the University of Mary Washington, a similar public college in Fredericksburg, Va., has shrunk almost as much. Its head count is 4,831, down 7 percent since 2010.

Much of the decline is in out-of-state enrollment – a pattern the school is eager to reverse because non-Virginians pay higher tuition.