I write to share a few thoughts about our annual 20th day enrollment numbers, which were released today in coordination with the Kansas Board of Regents, and to describe how recent enrollment trends will impact KU both in the short run and in the years ahead.
First, our overall enrollment fell 2.8 percent this year – a decrease of 804 students – due largely to declines in international students and first-time freshmen. Specifically, more than half of the decrease stems from a drop in international students (down 18.1 percent), while more than a third of the decrease stems from a drop in first-time freshmen (down 7.2 percent), which includes a 29.3 percent decline in international freshmen.
Additionally, today’s data show the one-year retention rate for last year’s freshmen is 85.7 percent – the second-highest rate in KU history – while the two-year retention rate for the 2018 freshmen is an all-time high 77.1 percent.
Given the hardships the pandemic has presented students and families – and the uncertainty it has created in the higher education market – we are pleased to have experienced such a modest enrollment decline. To have limited the decline to just 2.8 percent, and to have maintained historically high retention rates, is a testament to the great work you’ve done to help students continue their coursework during these turbulent times. To put it simply, we exceeded our expectations and outperformed many of our peer institutions, thanks to you.
While we are pleased with this year’s enrollment, the reality is the university – and in particular the Lawrence campus – still faces unprecedented fiscal challenges that necessitate painful cost-savings measures in the months ahead. In the short term, we need to address the current fiscal year deficit, which we previously projected to be $120 million. While we likely will be able to revise that projection down due to our better-than-expected enrollment, the current fiscal year challenge remains substantial. We will provide a revised projected deficit soon.
Beyond the current fiscal year, the decline in international students and freshmen presents ongoing revenue shortages that will follow us for years. When freshmen enrollment falls, that isn’t a one-year tuition hit; rather, we lose tuition we would have received for multiple years. Additionally, the decline in international students disproportionately impacts tuition revenue because these students pay the higher non-resident rate.
In summary, while we should pause to celebrate today’s enrollment data, we must be mindful of the unprecedented financial challenges we continue to face. As I’ve written before, KU will need to adopt new business models, reorganize and restructure, and implement cost reductions. All options – including furloughs, layoffs, and salary reductions – must be considered for us to manage through this. The decisions ahead will be hard, but they are necessary to ensure the long-term health of the university.
Thank you for your efforts to help students become and remain Jayhawks. It is, quite simply, the most important thing each of us can do for the university right now.
Douglas A. Girod