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MOMENTUM
A Web Letter from the Office of the Provost - November 2021
Provost Jay Akridge

By Mary Jane Chew

A Message from Jay

Dear Colleagues,

I hope your Thanksgiving break was a happy, peaceful time with your families and friends and gave you an opportunity to recharge as we begin the final three weeks of our Fall 2021 semester. As hard as it is to believe, winter commencement is just around the corner.

This time of year brings updates on nationwide college enrollments and the news is not positive. As all of you know, we have seen year-after-year record undergraduate enrollment at Purdue West Lafayette, and applications are again strong for our Fall 2022 class. Our growing enrollment runs dramatically counter to the national trend. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that undergraduate enrollments nationally are down 3.5% in Fall 2021, with a two-year decline of 7.8%. By contrast, undergraduate enrollment at our Purdue West Lafayette campus is up 6.2% for Fall 2021, and up 10.3% over the last two years.

It is important to unpack these numbers as there are significant differences across institutions of higher education. Public 2-year colleges (community colleges) have been the hardest hit, with enrollments down 6% in Fall 2021, and 14.8% over the past two years. Private for-profit 4-year universities are down 8.5% for Fall 2021, and 10.8% over the past two years, while the same figures for private non-profits are -0.6% and -3.0%.

Enrollment at public 4-year universities varies dramatically depending on the focus of the institution. Highly selective public flagship universities, similar to Purdue West Lafayette, have seen some increase in enrollment nationally: 1.5% in Fall 2021, and 1.7% over the past 2 years. However, the least selective 4-year public universities are down 4.9% this fall and 8.1% over the past two years.

In terms of race and ethnicity, undergraduate enrollment declined more in 2021 for White, Black, and Native American students (-5% to -6%) compared to Asian (-2.2%) and Latinx (-2.8%) students. Females were down slightly more than males at the undergraduate level this fall (-4.1% females compared to -3.4% males), though there still are far more women enrolled in undergraduate programs nationally than men (59% women and 41% men in 2020).

There is so much more to unpack in these numbers, but the bottom-line is clear: nationally, fewer of the traditional 18-24 year students we see at Purdue West Lafayette are pursuing undergraduate degrees, even among those who are eligible. (Some of the drivers and trends for the typical Purdue Global student are different.) It would take many more columns to dig into all that is going on here, but in our state, 59% of our 2019 Indiana high school graduates enrolled in college, compared to 65% in 2015. Given the Indiana high school college-going population is on a decline, this means tougher competition for enrollments within the state.

Additionally, while the total number of high school graduates has been trending up nationally over the past decade, that trend is getting ready to change given declining birth rates following the Great Recession. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education predicts 4% fewer high school graduates in 2037 compared to 2017, with the Midwest accounting for the largest proportion of this decline. In another dimension of all this, students from lower income backgrounds are less likely to attend college. Since 2019, FAFSA filers are down 5% and, among those filing FAFSA, first-generation students represent a declining proportion of completers.

Questions about the cost and value of a college education, concerns about student debt, a robust job market, among other factors, all have some impact here on the decision by high school students to attend college.

Until now, we have been insulated from these national trends. That said, I do want to make sure you are aware of what is happening across the country. Given the central importance of tuition revenue to higher education institutions of all types, declining enrollments are creating substantial pressures for other colleges and universities – resulting, in some cases, in college closings and mergers.

Will Purdue be impacted by these state and national trends? The answer, of course, is “Yes.” And the obvious next question is, “How do we respond?”

The good news is that we are already responding in a number of ways, and such sobering data reinforce what we are doing, underscore the urgency to act now, and emphasize the need for even more creative solutions going forward.

Many of you work with our pathway programs that impact high school students’ preparation for and decision to attend college. Informal education programs such as 4-H; summer programs such as Summer College for High School Students; student and teacher preparation programs such as Science Express in the College of Science, and CATALYST in the College of Education; the Purdue Polytechnic High Schools; programs sponsored by the Minority Engineering Program (MEP), the Business Opportunity Program (BOP), and the Purdue Agribusiness Science Academy (PASA); and the Purdue Fast Start program – among many others not listed here – are all aimed in some way on growing the number of students prepared for and interested in college.

Of course, we have worked hard to address affordability through our tuition freeze, holding the cost of room and board down, and finding new ways to help students finance their college education. There is little doubt that this focus on “value” has helped to make Purdue the college of choice for so many.

Looking forward, initiatives such as Transformative Education 2.0 will play a fundamental role in helping us deliver a Purdue education that supports the educational aspirations of our students and meets the needs of employers and graduate/professional schools.

These national undergraduate enrollment headwinds are real. Thanks to your creativity and hard work, we have been successful in navigating these headwinds to date, and a Purdue undergraduate education has never been more desirable. That said, it will take deliberate effort, creativity and innovation, bold thinking, and even more hard work to grow the number of students prepared for and interested in college. It will require a renewed commitment from all of us to successfully deliver an undergraduate educational experience that will attract an increasingly diverse group of the best and brightest students to our University.

While there are no guarantees here, based on what I have seen from our leadership, our faculty, and our staff, I have every confidence we can and will meet that challenge.

Best regards,

Jay