Ten of Michigan’s 15 universities suffer decreasing enrollment, causing some education analysts to question the viability of some of them surviving.
The main culprit has been identified by most analysts as fixed realities such as shifting demographics and the high costs of higher education.
“The full-year equivalent enrollment of resident students peaked in the 2010-11 school year and the schools have lost one out of 13 full-year equivalent students since then,” James Hohman, director of fiscal policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told The Center Square. “Over the same time, total spending for colleges increased 14 percent over inflation.”
Hohman said Michigan distributed $1.5 billion to the state’s colleges in 2019. The approved 2020 budget increases that amount by less than 1 percent.
Veteran journalist Chad Selweski has labeled the trend a “crisis” in an interview with The Center Square.
“The emphasis has always been for students to do well in high school so they can go to university,” Selweski said. “Otherwise, they were told they weren’t going anywhere.”
Selweski noted another prevalent trend in higher education is the high degree of attrition among university students.
“In some instances,” he said, “nearly 50 percent of students drop out before graduation.”
For example, as the Lansing State Journal reported last February, enrollment at Eastern Michigan University has fallen by 20 percent since 2013, forcing the school to drop four sports programs and 100 employees since 2016. Central Michigan University also witnessed a 20 percent decline in student enrollment over the past 10 years. It eradicated 50 staff positions in order to compensate.
Northern Michigan University, Saginaw Valley State University, Wayne State University and Lake Superior State University (LSSU) all lost 10 percent of the schools’ respective enrollments.
“Lake Superior dropped many of its programs,” Selweski said. “At this rate, the school’s not going to survive in the long run because the curriculum is shrinking and state funding is shrinking at the same time.”
Selweski cited a Bridge Magazine article that claimed LSSU jettisoned 27 percent of its bachelor degree programs between 2016 and 2017.
Selweski noted one problem with the state’s universities was they operate independently from each other, a point with which Eric W. Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council, concurs.
Lupher told The Center Square that Michigan is one of only two states without a coordinated university system, which he and Selweski agree results in many costly redundancies of curriculum and duplication of services.
“Every school offers the same core classes,” he said.
Eliminating these redundancies and thereby increasing individual schools’ specialized curriculum might be one way schools facing enrollment shortages can survive in the future, Lupher said.
According to Lupher, the demographic change in Michigan is responsible for the majority of the decline in university enrollment.
“There are fewer students going through the K-12 system so fewer students are going on to higher education,” he said.
Students who might’ve matriculated at the state’s universities in the falls of 2018 and 2019 would’ve been born in 2000, but Michigan’s birthrate has fallen 18 percent since that year.
Lupher also noted that the state’s job market is attracting college-age adults to forego higher education completely in order to land a steady income. Others either attend trade schools or vocational education programs that promise more immediate financial awards than a four-year degree that might put them in long-term debt.
Lupher also suspects many young people are opting to attend community colleges in order to receive a break from paying higher university tuitions.
“There used to be a stigma against attending a community college first before transferring to a university,” he said. “That’s not the case any longer. Students and their parents see it as a more affordable means of attaining an education.”