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BSU Enrollment Steady Despite Budget Cuts

Jordan Shearer | Staff Writer | 11-17-2011

As many students and faculty are well aware, Bemidji State has recently gone through recalibration due to state-wide budget cuts.  The result of this recalibration is that everything has been shaken up: Professors have left and majors have been eliminated, reduced, and restructured. The school has a revised menu, as it were. One thing that seems to have remained unchanged, however, is the number of students that still roam campus.
Mary Ward, Vice President of Student Development and Enrollment, said that enrollment is down only point three hundredths of a percent from last year.  This number may seem small, but it seems even smaller when it is taken into perspective that last year saw one of BSU’s highest student enrollments in a number of years.  “We’ve been on an upward spiral,” said Ward.
This almost makes it seem that students were not affected at all by the budget cuts.  Perhaps they were. Perhaps they weren’t.  It is difficult to tell for sure because the university does not take inventory of the motives that lead students to either transfer or drop out. Ward explained that “Unless a student specifically fills out a form and said ‘this is the reason I’m leaving’ you have no way of knowing.”
The university itself seems to be surprised by the consistency in student numbers.  It feared that there would be a drop in enrollment, and, in preparation for this, it set aside a reserve fund. It contained $1.2 million that was intended to help cushion the impact of the lower tuition income that would have followed the lower enrollment numbers. Since enrollment was not affected, after all, nothing in the fund was actually used. According to Bill Maki, Vice President for Finance and Administration, “they [the funds] will remain in this reserve as the funds were intended for fiscal years 2012 and 2013.”
Obviously, the presumed impact that the cuts would have on enrollment was overestimated.  In response to this, Ward stated that “it is very difficult to predict human behavior” and that the worst must be expected and prepared for in this kind of situation. That is what BSU did.
Unlike some departments, admissions seems unsurprised that student numbers have not changed very much.  As far as they are concerned, BSU is still the same school, even though it has lost a few of its previous options.  Mary Jo Chirpich, Interim Director of Admissions, said that “Admissions really focuses on recruiting students to Bemidji State University as a whole.”
For instance, they heavily promote items such as the small class sizes, the campus location, the clubs and organizations, in addition to the majors.  So, when building relationships with prospective students, the idea is not to become tunnel-focused on the specific major that the student is looking into because “There are so many different avenues you can take to go in a career direction.”

Chirpich also mentioned that because BSU is a smaller campus, it is able to work with students in order to cater programs which fit that students’ needs, even if the exact program they were hoping for no longer exists.

A second reason Chirpich gave for the unaffected enrollment is that the programs which were reduced or eliminated were the ones that did not have a lot of students in them to begin with.  So, even if they were still possible options, they would not have very many students entering them.
On the other side of the argument, however, is the idea that enrollment numbers are not the primary concern that the school should be worried about.

Patrick Carriere, one of the professors of the theater department that will no longer be active after this year, explained that preparing a student for a career is only one aspect of what a university is meant to do. Another aspect is to help the student find out what is really important to him or her and then to provide the opportunity for that student to do and accomplish things that he or she never thought possible or even be interested in.

Therefore, by eliminating and reducing some of the majors, including the arts, students are kept within a smaller box.  Carriere referred to this as “one of the most pervasive powers out there: The power to limit what people think they are capable of or what they think is possible for them to do.”

He went on to say that this “challenge” to go beyond one’s own expectations is one of the jobs of the university. So, by making these changes it seems like a  “radical shift in the concept of what the university is.”