PITTSBURG, Kan. — The Kansas Board of Regents released numbers this week showing a decrease in higher education enrollment statewide. By one measure, among state universities, that decrease was greatest at Pittsburg State, although university officials questioned the usefulness of that metric.
Across the six state universities, the fall 2020 semester has seen a decrease of 3.6 percent in full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment compared to fall 2019. At Pittsburg State University, the FTE enrollment decreased by 5.9 percent — the most significant drop of the six.
At community colleges statewide, meanwhile, there was an 11.7 percent FTE enrollment decrease, and a drop of 8.7 percent at state technical colleges.
"COVID has introduced a unique set of hurdles for higher education that has negatively impacted fall enrollment as expected," KBOR President and CEO Blake Flanders said in a press release.
"However, the pandemic has also converged with longer-term challenges facing enrollment, including a steady decline in the college going rate of Kansas high school graduates. The Board is focused on advocating for the institutions as they weather the impact of coronavirus and on addressing longer-term issues to ensure that Kansans can build rewarding careers and Kansas businesses have access to the skilled workforce they need."
PSU President Steve Scott said that because of COVID-19, along with enrollment declines throughout the higher education system in recent years, the university’s enrollment decrease was not unexpected, but it was mitigated by extraordinary efforts of faculty and staff in response to the pandemic.
"I could not be more pleased with how the university has kept its focus on serving students and the community," Scott said in a press release.
PSU also pointed to its headcount — which also decreased, but less dramatically than its FTE enrollment — as a better indicator of how the university is handling the pandemic.
"Among the state universities, PSU falls in the middle" in terms of headcount, the university said in its release. PSU’s headcount decreased from 6,645 last year to 6,398 students this year, or 3.7 percent. While this was still higher than the statewide headcount decrease of 3.5 percent among state universities, others including Fort Hays State University and Kansas State University saw their headcounts decline by higher percentages.
The university also noted that its rate of retention of last year’s freshmen who were returning for the 2020-21 academic year was slightly higher than the previous year, and questioned whether FTE enrollment was the best measure of the impact of COVID-19 on its operations.
"Whether a student is taking a full load (defined as more than 9 hours) or is attending the university part time (taking fewer than 9 hours), it still takes the same amount of resources to serve them – faculty who teach courses in the large number of academic programs we offer, staff who carry out campus operations in offices across campus, student support services, police, maintenance of our buildings and infrastructure, utilities, etc.," PSU Director of Media Relations Andra Stefanoni said in an email.
"Let’s take our graduate student category, for example, which is up 109 students who are seeking master’s degrees this year. They aren’t going to school full time, most likely because they are employed and might be taking classes in the evenings and on the weekends to earn their advanced degrees (teachers are a great example of this). But it’s important we count each one of them because they each need an advisor, teachers, and campus resources."
Full-time equivalent enrollment, "by comparison, is calculated by dividing the total number of undergraduate credit hours taken in a semester by 15 and dividing graduate credit hours by 12," Stefanoni said. "When you look at our FTE, which is a method KBOR just began using in Fall 2018, that is down likely because we lost about 100 incoming freshmen, and we lost international enrollment — both of which we attribute to the pandemic."
Others, though, have pointed to FTE enrollment as an important financial indicator.
"Headcount enrollment, or the total number of individual students taking classes at a Regents institution, fell by 14,596 students, or 8.1%, this fall," the Topeka Capital-Journal reported.
"However, the full-time equivalency is a more accurate indicator of a university’s financial health, since it generally shows changes in an institution’s tuition revenue."
PSU has flat-rate tuition for full-time students, meaning that students meeting the minimum requirements to count as full-time pay the same as those taking additional classes, but regardless of that benefit for students taking a large course load, it doesn’t seem likely that a significant decrease in FTE enrollment can be good news for the university.
"It could be worse," PSU President Scott said in the university’s release, "but we certainly aren’t letting up. We’re continuing to do all we can to remove the cost barrier to earn a college degree, and to look at new and innovative ways to reach and serve potential and current students."