Despite overcoming enrollment dip, focus remains on budgetary issues

Despite fall 2017 bringing in a smaller-than-projected freshman class, Baldwin Wallace ended its financial year with a positive budget, faring better than most other liberal arts colleges across the country.

While 2018’s freshman class is nearly on-budget, the enrollment challenges that led to last year’s budget concerns aren’t going away, said Dr. Scott Schulz, BW’s vice president for enrollment management.

Factors like a population decline in the midwest and competition from other schools are leading BW to seek different and creative ways of staying on budget. Most of BW’s budget dollars come from student tuition, said Schulz, making it vital for the school to attract and retain students.

“Public universities, they get subsidies from the state, whereas private colleges, particularly like ours, are what you would consider ‘tuition-dependent,’ meaning that most of our budget dollars come directly from students and their tuition dollars,” said Schulz. “And that’s why enrollment is such a critical piece.”

The biggest challenge BW faces from an enrollment standpoint is a population shift in northeast Ohio: in general, people are leaving the midwest and the northeast to move to the west and the south, said Schulz. As Ohio is home to over 50 private colleges and universities, the population decline makes for a “difficult market” for enrollment for schools like BW.

In addition to this population decline, another nationwide demographic shift is on the horizon. From 2008 to 2012, during the Great Recession, the national birthrate declined 10 to 15 percent. As a result, there will be a significantly smaller population of high school graduates between 2026 and 2030.

“We’re already in decline anyway, but then you have just a massive drop-off in 2026 when that birthrate decline falls off the shelf,” said Schulz. “It’s going to happen across the country…[but] the difference is in Ohio, you’re not going to see much of a recovery after that.”

Though other states are expected to recover from this population drop-off, Ohio’s population is projected to continue to decline. Despite the “long-term forecast” for undergraduate enrollment being “not very positive,” said Schulz, the university is in good financial shape and is already planning ahead to ensure the strength of the institution throughout those “leaner years.”

Bill Reniff, BW’s vice president for finance and administration, said that BW has a “stable outlook” and is “pretty solid financially” in the midst of enrollment difficulties. Even with Fall 2017’s small freshman class, the university managed to finish the financial year in the black without laying off any employees, Reniff said. Through consolidating and cross-training employees instead of hiring to fill vacancies and by holding off on employee pay raises last year, the university avoided a budget deficit.

With this year’s freshman class being only eight freshmen below budget, Reniff said that he expects pay raises to return this year.

In addition to these efforts, the university is planning for the future by looking to expand its revenue sources beyond primarily undergraduate tuition, said Reniff. One way BW is seeking to accomplish this is by investing in “non-enrollment revenue sources” like the new bookstore and the university-owned Starbucks franchise on Front Street. These projects gather revenue that helps the “bottom line” of the university and helps to keep tuition hikes down.

In addition to non-enrollment revenue sources, BW has also been “modernizing” its approach to undergraduate recruitment, said Schulz. Though the use of predictive modeling and careful attention to marketing and branding, BW has been “much more targeted and focused” in its efforts to recruit available high school graduates.

BW is also looking to diversify its budget portfolio through its academic program offerings, said Schulz. BW has seen growth in not only its new undergraduate academic programs—including engineering, environmental science and the B.F.A. in acting—but also in its graduate programs.

Schulz said BW’s increasing focus on its graduate programs is something of an “identity shift” for the school, which has been historically centered around its undergraduate programs. Between investing in the graduate programs and offering academic programs that attract the available undergraduate students, Schulz said that from an academic standpoint, BW is preparing to remain strong in the midst of enrollment struggles.

“When we look at the 10-year future of BW, it’s got to be a continued diversification of our budget portfolio so it’s not so heavily dependent just on the undergraduate population, but instead, shift some of that over to our graduate efforts as well as our non-enrollment revenue,” said Schulz.

Schulz said he is “optimistic” that BW is well-prepared for the difficult times ahead.

“Continuing to find that right mix of programs and continuing to trust in data-driven approaches, I think, will put us in a position to be successful,” said Schulz.