Fewer students forces St. Cloud State to cut programs and profs

Dramatic declines in college admissions led the 2020 Minnesota Legislature to set a goal. The state looked to increase the number of financial aid applications (FAFSA) filed by high school seniors by five percent annually for five years, starting from the 48 percent mark of completed FAFSA forms in 2020. At that rate, the percentage of high school seniors filling out the form should already be up ten points to 58 percent, aiming for 63 percent in 2023.

But three years later, state education officials have failed to move the needle, still stuck at 48 percent of seniors sending in that key indicator of college admissions.

Minnesota has set a statewide goal for FAFSA filing of high school seniors to increase FAFSA filing by five percentage points over the previous year. This means our goal for the class of 2023 is to have 53% of seniors filing a FAFSA.

Yet there’s little prospect for an upturn this year, given the fact that just 41 percent of seniors have filled out the financial aid form to date, ranking Minnesota 40th among the states.

It’s not just a theoretical exercise. The real world consequences of sagging attendance have left St. Cloud State with an $18 million budget shortfall and no choice but to unveil significant cuts detailed in the Star Tribune.

The majors to be phased out are philosophy, theater, nuclear medicine technology, real estate and insurance at the undergraduate level, as well as marriage and family therapy at the graduate level…

The university will also lay off 23 faculty and 14 staff, which will save more than $4.1 million in the coming year, as well as offer early separation incentives for employees to help pick away at the university’s structural deficit, which leaders define as a chronic gap between the revenue and expenses. In recent years, the structural deficit has been exacerbated by the steady enrollment decline — which wasn’t met with a similar decline in staffing levels — and the pandemic.

“We just can’t keep our fingers crossed anymore. We just have to do it,” [SCS President Robbyn] Wacker said, noting university leaders hope the budget cuts and other operational adjustments will reduce the deficit to a point where the university’s revenues outpace expenses by 2026.

It’s all about the math, which reveals a staggering decline in students and the revenue they represent at the central Minnesota university in the last decade or so.

The student headcount at St. Cloud State has dropped from more than 18,000 in 2010 to about 10,000 last fall. But not only are the numbers dropping, the students are changing: Nearly 50% of students are part-time, about 25% are under 18 and enrolled in postsecondary classes, and about 10% are 35 and older.

There are also fewer traditional students — recent high school graduates looking for a four-year degree — than in previous decades because of declining birthrates beginning in the 1990s, changes in perception around the importance of undergraduate degrees, and more education options such as for-profit and online colleges.

SCS has tried to get ahead of the changing marketplace for higher education through an initiative called “It’s Time.” The question is whether there’s enough time to turn around the steady retreat of more high school graduates from college campuses in favor of other options. Administrators hope to increase attendance at SCS by 30 percent in the next five years.

University leaders see promise in the “It’s Time” plan, which focuses on expanding the student base by simplifying the transfer process, diversifying online and hybrid class options and offering more options for credentials such as badges, certificates and professional development courses.

The plan also focuses on honing in on four niche education areas: holistic health and wellness, education, leadership, and engineering and applied science.