Rider to make up for enrollment shortfall

By Lauren Santye
Even as students began navigating their way around the promising changes of construction sites on both campuses, President Mordechai Rozanski laid out in his convocation address last week a list of serious financial challenges.

Most notably, he said, undergraduate enrollment this fall will be about 80 students under budget. In turn, campus housing will be 50 students under goal. This adds about $2.4 million to a gap originally forecast to be $4.9 million, creating a total “potential structural gap” of $7.3 million. That has necessitated shifting and trimming funds, including a voluntary $50,000 cut in the president’s own salary.
See graphic on page 4.

“We pay close attention to full-time undergraduate enrollment, because it comprises 88% of Rider’s total tuition revenue,” Rozanski told about 400 faculty and staff members in a packed Yvonne Theater on Aug. 29.

Enrollment goals for transfer and international students are expected to be met. There have also been some gains in geographic and ethnic diversity. According to Rozanski, 29% of freshmen are from states other than New Jersey, up from 26% last year. The next biggest sources, in order, are Pennsylvania, New York, California, Texas, Maryland, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia.

Hispanic enrollment has grown about 14% as well.“It is the fastest growing minority group in the Northeast, and part of our mission to increase our overall minority population,” Rozanski said.

In fundraising, he said, the university set a record for cash received last year, $14.1 million, thanks in part to two major bequests.

Some faculty members felt misled by parts of the speech.

Dr. Joel Phillips, professor of Music Theory and Composition and chair of the University Academic Policy Committee, said the president misspoke when he said Rider has a “structural deficit.”

“If Rider had a structural deficit, it would mean the university is incapable of breaking even ­— even under the best of circumstances,” he said. “This is simply not the case. Each year our independent auditor finds the university in sound financial health and reports that Rider has an annual operating surplus.”

Although Rozanski expressed confidence things would improve, he emphasized that the challenges are multiple.

“The environment for higher education is increasingly more challenging as we face issues with affordability, accountability, outcome expectations, changing demographics, new technology, and concerns about enrollment and finances,” Rozanski said. “These are issues that are daily realities for us and our peers and now have been elevated to a national level by President Obama.”

He said he looked on solutions to financial issues as “instruments to achieve our most important goal — academic quality and the success of our students.”

Struggles

For the past three years, Rider has been faced with recruiting and enrollment challenges. Rider is not the only New Jersey school in this predicament.

“Private enrollment has remained flat, actually dipping into a slight negative,” said Jamie O’Hara, vice president for Enrollment Management.

The N.J. Department of Higher Education reports that of the 14 private colleges in New Jersey nine have declined in enrollment from fall 2009 to fall 2012. Felician and Monmouth have remained relatively flat,while Princeton, Stevens Institute of Technology and Seton Hall have had significant enrollment gains.

Even community colleges’ full-time enrollment has declined by 8%, according to O’Hara.
“People are opting for part-time enrollment due to the economic problems they’re facing,” he said.

Phillips agreed that Rider didn’t meet its enrollment goals and the size of the student body is shrinking.

“Both are true, but enrollments are cyclical,” he said. “The university is and has been keenly aware of the demographics that led to our peak enrollment in 2009 and the decline that has followed. For the most part Rider has captured more than its share of available students during these years.”

Rider’s difficulty may stem in part from this year’s steep tuition increase of 5.5%, both Rozanski and O’Hara suggested. Still, Rider’s tuition of $35,270 remains the second lowest among its top 10 private competitors.

“The sticker price you see here is one issue, the other is financial aid,” O’Hara said. “Although some of the other schools on the top 10 competitors list have a higher tuition, they balance it by offering higher financial aid than Rider.”

Contributing factors

Although the number of high school graduates has decreased nationally by 6% between 2010 and 2013, the bigger issues lie in where graduates choose to go to college. New Jersey is currently ranked No. 1 in “exporting” high school students. The state sends 35,000 students a year to other states to continue their education, according to O’Hara.
Rider’s competition with in-state four-year college institutions has also intensified. Between 2004 and 2009, public institutions’ enrollments increased by 15%. All three of Rider’s top public competitors’ enrollment went up: Rutgers 9%, The College of New Jersey 5% and Rowan 11%.

It’s no secret that Rider’s tuition increase is burning holes in students’ and parents’ pockets.

“Our challenge every year is to price tuition so that it allows us to meet our financial obligations, that it provides financial aid and still is in a place that we consider affordable for prospective students,” O’Hara said.

In an attempt to increase the enrollment numbers, Rider increased its financial aid budget this year by 7% to $54 million. However, the most challenging students to enroll were high school students with an average GPA around 3.1. In hopes to appeal especially to these students, Rider increased the financial aid award amounts by 19% last year.
“However, this increase was not enough; we missed this particular student population by 50 students,” O’Hara said.

Parents of these students have been less willing to stretch to meet Rider’s costs. Despite these challenges, Rider has come away with some facts.

“One of the most important things we’ve learned is how heavily influenced this group is by financial aid,” he said. “Parents of these students are looking for affordability, plain and simple. When Rider does not offer that for their child, they’re encouraged by the cheaper public college option.”

Looking forward

O’Hara explained that Rider’s goal is to figure out a way to attract full-time enrollment, not just for next year but the next several years. The university also needs to continue to recruit throughout New Jersey and secure primary markets within the state. Secondary markets like Florida, Texas, California and North Carolina need to grow.

Rider has been working on and is continuing to develop dual-admission programs with community colleges for prospective transfer students.

This year, the ELI program is hosting 22 Brazilians, who will be attending Rider for the fall semester, but not completing their degree here. There will be a total of 40 ESL students this fall.

In May, a new major in Criminal Justice was approved, and already 25 students are signed up. Rider is looking to add other attractive new majors.
Phillips was very pleased to hear the President mention the reduction of administrative costs.

“This is a very good course of action. In recent years the administration has expanded significantly with the addition of many full-time deans, assistants to assistants, and so on,” he said. “Every decision Rider makes should directly benefit our students, whether it means enhanced instruction or more financial aid.

Most importantly, Rider is focusing on recruiting and retaining students; continuing to provide competitive financial aid,, and setting a more reasonable tuition increase for next year.

“Our financial aid budget continues to be the most important tool we have in recruiting and retaining students to the university,” O’Hara said.  “Many of the challenges we faced this year we will face again. But I do believe we’ll be better prepared this coming year.”

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