Leaders at the University of Alaska Anchorage are grappling with their largest drop in enrollment in years.
The number of students who signed up for UAA classes this fall compared to the year before fell by about 1,500 students, or nearly 10%, according to preliminary data from the University of Alaska system.
The enrollment drop follows a tense state budget battle and accreditation issues for the Anchorage university, and adds additional financial loss to a system that’s already cash-strapped and stressed.
“It’s significant for us,” said Bruce Schultz, UAA’s vice chancellor for student affairs. “It’s one of the largest declines we’ve seen in the last 10 years.”
While UAA, the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Alaska Southeast have struggled for almost a decade with shrinking enrollments, along with colleges across the country, a one-year, 10% decline is “not typical by any means,” according to Robert Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.
He described it as “seismic.”
“I think it represents an uncertainty that students and their families feel regarding at what level Alaska will support higher education,” Anderson wrote in an email.
UAA Chancellor Cathy Sandeen said it became apparent this summer that fewer students would show up in the fall — defying projections.
“We keep a dashboard of our admission and enrollment data, and everything was green,” she said. “We were expecting a banner year for fall of 2019. And then in July, all those indicators turned red as fewer and fewer students were enrolling.”
She attributed the decline to a number of factors:
First, university regents voted in April to eliminate UAA’s teacher preparation programs after they lost accreditation.
Then came the summer’s state funding battle sparked by the governor cutting an unprecedented 41% of state funding for the UA system.
In response, university leaders warned they’d have to erase degree programs and shut down whole campuses.
In the middle of all of that, thousands of Alaska students learned there was no money to pay for their college scholarships.
Talk about consolidating the UA system also gained new momentum.
It was a chaotic pile-up of issues during a key time for UAA enrollment, Sandeen said.
“So we had many, many questions from students,” she said. “And during portions of the summer, we didn’t have a lot of good answers for them. We tried to assure them that there still would be substantial programs offered in Anchorage, hang in there with us. But, you know, some of them chose a wait-and-see approach.”
It’s also important to remember that many UAA students are older than the traditional college student, Sandeen said. They’re often working while they’re earning their degrees, and many are the first in their family to go to college.
A lot of them also wait until shortly before the semester starts to enroll in classes, Schultz said.
“It’s just the pattern,” he said. “Because they’re so dependent on financing and wanting to know how much time off they get from work and family obligations, they register in August. And because of the conversations and the negativity that was going through the community about the future of UAA and the statewide budget, our students didn’t register.”
Keon O’Brien is one of the university students who nervously watched the budget back-and-forth play out in the news this summer. He had just finished his freshman year at UAA, studying music.
“I honestly had no clue what I was going to do. I was working three jobs over the summer trying to save up for school,” he said. “I had plans for the fall. And that was sort of all turned on its head. I started looking at transfer options in June, July-ish.”
But, O’Brien said, he didn’t have enough time to transfer out of state.
So he’s still at UAA this year, and he said he notices fewer people on campus, whether in the dorms or in the student union.
O’Brien said he’s still weighing whether to stay at UAA another year, but he’s leaning toward leaving.
Even with the smaller state budget cut agreed to and scholarships going out, O’Brien said staying at UAA feels too risky. He worries about continued funding cuts decimating his program. Some of his friends are already gone.
“Which is really unfortunate because I love UAA. I love all the opportunities I’ve had here. I love the people here,” he said. “And so it’s sort of like, I don’t want to leave, but I sort of have to.”
According to a survey of UAA students who didn’t return this fall, the largest chunk who responded — about 38% — said they were taking a break from college.
“The biggest barrier we have is students deciding not to go to school at all,” Schultz said. “We don’t have students just flowing across state boundaries and among institutions.”
Nearly a quarter cited concerns about costs and financial aid, and 18% said they had transferred to another university.
To adjust to a smaller student body, UAA is offering fewer classes.
This fall, the university had 412 fewer course sections, about a 15% cut, Schultz said.
UAA also expects to be down at least $5.5 million in tuition and fees this year. That’s on top of its slice of the state funding cut: nearly $12.5 million.
Sandeen said UAA is currently reviewing its programs to inform where to cut spending. So are the other universities.
“Right now we’re still in somewhat of a period of uncertainty,” she said. “And I understand where people are coming from, but we’re working as hard as we can to turn this around so that we continue to help people fulfill their dreams.”
Sandeen said UAA also continues to “invest heavily” in recruiting new students and retaining those already enrolled.