How 2 of higher ed’s most challenging trends are causing pain this fall

While declining enrollment loomed even before the pandemic, political interference targeting schools' DEI programs and tenure has caught wildfire in the last year. Now, 22 states have anti-DEI legislation pushes slated this year.

While every college and university has unique challenges, broad trends inevitably develop, forcing higher education leaders to deal with their implications collectively. Two macro trends nationwide seem no more consequential than continuing political interference in higher education practices and downward trending enrollment.

Higher ed has been dealing with declining enrollment for over a decade; since undergraduate numbers hit their peak in 2010, enrollment has fallen by almost three million. The main culprits? Changing demographics and a more skeptical public perception.

But while declining enrollment loomed even before the pandemic, political interference targeting schools’ DEI programs and tenure has caught wildfire in the last year. Now, 22 states have anti-DEI legislation pushes slated this year.

Political interference and declining enrollment, two of higher education’s most formidable trends, have already begun to impact several colleges and universities this fall—and at one major university system, the two are coalescing.

Wisconsin lawmakers cut DEI funding by citing UW system enrollment, revenue woes

Between 2019 and 2022, three University of Wisconsin System campuses saw more than a 17% drop in enrollment. Systemwide, enrollment is at its lowest since 2000, according to Biz Times.

Facing increasing costs and declining enrollment across the statewide UW system, 10 of its 13 campuses are expected to run deficits this year as the system finished the 2023 fiscal year $33 million in the red, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

It’s a “recipe for serious financial issues,” system President Jay Rothman told the board Tuesday.

The budget deficit and declining enrollment have led the UW Board of Regents to agree on a systemwide 5% tuition hike, the first of its kind in over a decade. Individual campuses are taking more dire measures. UW-Oshkosh, which is expected to deplete its reserve capital by the end of the year, will lay off 200 employees and furlough the rest.

And while Gov. Tony Evers proposed a $305 million increase for the UW system over the next two school years, but Republican lawmakers have decided to cut state funding by $32 million. They arrived at that number by explicitly targeting the system’s DEI initiatives.

“Let’s hope these campuses start by eliminating their unnecessary [diversity, equity and inclusion] positions,” said Robin Vos (R-Rochester). “It would be a first step in showing they’re serious about cutting wasteful spending, shoring up their deficits, and working with the Legislature to develop sustainable long-term funding solutions.”

Will Arkansas be the latest DEI state opponent?

Following Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ executive order to prohibit indoctrination and critical race theory in schools, the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, took it into its own hands to dissolve its DEI office.

Now, the Arkansas Legislative Council on Friday authorized a subcommittee to conduct a study on DEI practices in state colleges and universities by the end of 2024. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Jonesboro) intends to propose legislation on the matter in 2025.

These are the same developments made in Florida and Texas before their respective legislations on the practice of limited funding or outright banning it.

Shirley Malcom, senior advisor to the CEO and director of the STEM Equity Achievement Change initiative, finds that states that are against DEI put their universities in peril of receiving state funding. Federal agencies usually require applicants to exemplify commitments to diversity and equity in their work, putting them in direct tension with state principles.

“If universities say, ‘We don’t want to [demonstrate DEI compliance],’ the agencies will say, ‘Well, then we can’t give you the money.’ I don’t know whether they will blink; that’s an unsettled question,” said Malcom, according to Insight Into Diversity. “It’s a dicey thing in terms of trying to hold on to your program principles, values, and criteria on the one hand, and yet you’re being given a different message over here.” 

The first college closure this academic year

Hodges University, the small private nonprofit university in Naples and Fort Myers, Fla., is closing its doors, citing enrollment and financial challenges after 33 years of operation. It will close permanently by the end of next August as it begins to initiate transfer agreements with nearby institutions, according to a school statement.

Scary state enrollment trends

The Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit advocacy organization, recently disclosed that the college-going rate among Washington state’s high school graduating classes has decreased by 10% between 2019 and 2021.

As higher education enrollment dips, the proportion of state jobs requiring degrees remains the same: 70% of them will require a credential beyond a high school certificate in 2024 and 2029, according to the Union-Bulletin.

“These students are going to be in a bind in terms of getting good jobs with advancement opportunities,” said Brian Jeffries, nonprofit policy director.

Similarly, Michigan’s aging population makes the state particularly vulnerable to student declines; a quarter of its counties have a median age of 50, according to Bridge Michigan. Between 2010 and 2019, higher education enrollment dropped by almost 25%, according to News Center 1.

Michigan is drawing its older population back to school through Michigan Reconnect, a scholarship program that promotes tuition-free community college for students 25 and older.

Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel
Alcino Donadel is a UB staff writer and Florida Gator alumnus. A graduate in journalism and communications, his beats have ranged from Gainesville's city development, music scene, and regional little league sports divisions. He has triple citizenship from the U.S., Ecuador, and Brazil.

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