Liberal arts colleges across the U.S. have recently seen a decrease in the number of prospective students applying and enrolling. Lewis & Clark is no exception to this recent downward trend. The class of 2023 is predicted to amount to 514 first-year students along with 42 transfer students. This year’s class is considerably smaller than last year’s 576 first-years and much smaller than the graduating class of 2019, informally known as “classzilla,” which consisted of 654 first-years.
According to Interim Vice President for Admissions and Financial Aid Jennifer Delahunty, this year’s freshman class is smaller than expected but has the highest average GPA in five years, more gender balance (60.8 percent females in comparison to last years 65.5 percent) and 30 percent U.S. students of color.
According to “The Great Enrollment Crash,” an article by The Chronicle on Higher Education, “students have been inexorably marching away from the traditional liberal-arts majors. One such report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences noted that bachelor’s degrees in the humanities represented 17 percent of all degrees conferred in 1967, compared with 5 percent in 2015.”
The enrollment crisis directly affects liberal arts schools such as LC due to the emphasis these schools put on the humanities. Yet, according to the Chronicle on Higher Education, not only are degrees in humanities decreasing, so are the number of young people who see the importance of higher education.
“Even more alarming is the perception among a growing number of young people today that, with escalating college costs and diminishing payoffs in terms of guaranteed career opportunities, a postsecondary education simply may not be worth the huge investment,” the article says.
Despite efforts made to attract a wider base of potential first-year students, the changes in the wider student market have affected LC.
“There’s change happening out there in terms of the whole ‘going to college population,’ … the choice behavior is changing among students,” Delahunty said.
Yet, in relation to other small liberal arts colleges, Delahunty believes that LC is doing well.
“There’s a kind of market correction that is happening, and Lewis & Clark will be far above that, wherever that line is,” she said. “But for other schools, lightly endowed schools that are more under enrolled and have a lot of capacity, it’s kind of a scary time.”
The official school-wide census will not be released until Oct. 1, though it is expected that this year’s first-year class size will be smaller than the numbers projected at the end of the last academic year. As a liberal arts institution that is heavily dependent on tuition, rather than endowments and government funding, the decrease in prospective students has a direct impact on the college’s budget.
“On the first day of classes, we were at about 514 first-year, first-time students, which is about 36 below what we expected,” Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Suttmeier said over email. “For transfers, we are about five students above our projection (47 vs. 42) and for returning student numbers, we are significantly above where we thought we would be.”
Budget planning efforts for the college are underway, but it is too early to predict how the lower first-year student numbers will influence budget decisions. Interim Vice President for Business and Finance/Treasurer Andrea Dooley shared some insight on this matter.
“We have more transfers than we anticipated … and retention is looking a lot stronger than we anticipated as well,” Dooley said. “So overall, I think that those factors are … offsetting each other, so … the budget will be pretty much on track for what we planned, which is great.”
Associate Professor of History and Program Director for Asian Studies Susan Glosser, also a member of the Faculty Budget Advisory Standing Committee, spoke about budget problems that have arisen from low enrollment in the past.
“Last year, because the last entering class was smaller than we expected, we had to do a lot of belt tightening,” Glosser said. “(The Border Studies program) was cancelled altogether. And then also they went ahead and cancelled the spring iteration of the (Seoul, South Korea) program, and we had people already accepted and signed up ready to go. And so that was a big problem.”
LC relies on tuition payments to fund programs such as study abroad trips. In years where fewer students enroll, the overall budget for the college becomes smaller and budget cuts occur. To combat lower enrollment and disperse budget money in more effective ways LC has developed a strategy called Strategic Enrollment Management (SEM).
“There’s a strategic enrollment management process that’s been going on at Lewis & Clark for about two years, that is anticipating some of the changes that are happening with demographics,” Delahunty said. “The idea of strategic enrollment management is to provide the best quality of education to students and to make strategic decisions about where we invest in our programs… so that we not only enroll the right number of students, but that would graduate increasingly higher numbers of students in four years.”
The facts show that the market for prospective college students is changing and liberal arts colleges are declining in popularity. However, the LC administration aims to learn from, and grow with, the shifting collegiate marketplace while encouraging liberal arts values.
“I’m excited about this class,” Suttmeier said. “Based on GPA and other measures, they are a very strong class academically. From my personal interactions, whether with my own advisees or with first-year students I’ve talked to, I would say this class embodies the kinds of curious and engaged students who thrive on Palatine Hill and beyond.”