Evergreen Wrestles with Budget Problems Amidst Dropping Enrollment
By ISSAC SCOTT
Due to falling enrollment, Evergreen is in a budget crisis and will have to cut costs over the next several years. At a recent community meeting, Evergreen President Les Purce announced the crisis and lead a discussion by outlining the issues, the sources of the crisis, and how the administration plans to tackle these problems. After Purce spoke, community members in the audience raised concerns and suggested solutions.
The current crisis is a unique situation for the college in its 40-year history. Evergreen has always adapted to the varying levels of funding provided by the state legislature, but the new budget shortfall is because for the first time not enough students are coming to Evergreen.
Enrollment for the 2014-15 school year is expected to be at its lowest level since 1996, according to Purce. For the coming year, the administration budgeted for 4,270 full-time equivalent (FTE) students, but the administration now says a more realistic number will be just under 3,900 FTE. Enrollment at Evergreen peaked between 2009 and 2011, with an FTE count of around 4,800, and has declined since. The new drop in enrollment is expected to be the most significant the school has faced so far. In 2013, the school counted 4,424 FTE.
“That’s almost a 10 percent drop,” Purce said. “When I looked at these numbers, it was clear to me that we had to make major adjustments in our budget. We’re looking at a 3 percent reduction we have to accomplish, or about $1.5 million.”
The administration has an extra $800,000 saved to cover the budget shortfall in the year to come; Purce said the school is looking for strategies to attract more students and improve retention.
Evergreen is not the only college facing this problem right now. College enrollment is flat around Washington state, which means that every college is competing for fewer students.
Purce said the enrollment deficit is hitting Evergreen harder and faster than other institutions in the state.
Declining community college enrollment has made a particularly strong impact on Evergreen, because over half of Evergreen students are transfer students, largely from community colleges. And according to Purce, the University of Washington Tacoma campus has grown over recent years, and is taking in more community college students in the South Puget Sound area who may have otherwise been attracted to Evergreen.
Purce said that Evergreen, like other liberal arts institutions around the country, is seeing a shift toward more conservative paths in higher education in the wake of the financial crisis.
“Evergreen as an alternative institution has always struggled to explain the pathways people can move through to get a baccalaureate and go on to get a job. Even though our students have been tremendously successful in these areas.”
Another major concern is the diminishing support for higher education from the state legislature and higher tuition costs for students.
The school’s numbers show that while the state allocated $9,762 per Evergreen student in fiscal year 1990, adjusted for inflation, the state only paid $3,979 per student in fiscal year 2011.
“When I came to Evergreen in 1989, the state paid almost 75 percent of the cost of the education of the students,” Purce said. “Now it is almost exactly reversed. The cost of education is now shouldered by the students and families, more than it is by the state. Increasingly, public officials are saying higher education is an individual benefit, not a social benefit. We have to think about how we can effectively work politically to turn that around.”
Purce said that while more and more prospective students are low-income or first generation college students, the state has raised tuition and closed opportunities for these students to pursue higher education.
The school is beginning to address enrollment issues by upgrading the website, directly targeting more potential applicants, and clarifying possible fields of study.
And Purce says that because the traditional market for new students is shrinking, the school is looking for new areas to grow.
In particular, the administration wants to expand work with veterans, such as from Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Hispanic students, and international students. Currently, Evergreen has less than 1 percent international students, while the average on most other campuses is around 10 percent.
“The other thing that can make a huge difference is retention, simple retention,” Purce said. “If you think about it, if we’re able to keep more students here, then we don’t have the cost of recruiting as many students. We have to all be involved in the effort around retention.”
Community members, including students, faculty, and staff spoke to the need for Evergreen to stick to its founding principles, and avoid becoming more traditional.
“What I think we should do to survive this crisis, indeed to thrive in this crisis,” said evolutionary biology faculty Bret Weinstein, “is to sell ourselves based on what we’re good at: individually tailoring education. We should sell ourselves as the college that is the right one for uncertain times, where we’re not going to tell you what to think, but teach you how to think. Those are assets that make a great deal of sense for this particular era.”
Student Lucia Wyss also articulated the need for Evergreen to reassert its relevance to students, but to stay radical and unconventional.
“I think we’re in danger of losing our target population if we try to become more standardized,” Wyss said. “We’re in danger of being in a place where we’re too weird and freaky for people who want a normal education, and not weird enough for the people who want to come here. But I think there’s something to be said for showing students from the beginning how Evergreen can help them get where they want to be, and that’s not always clear.”