The good times/bad times dynamic is playing out elsewhere in the state, with total enrollment since 2010 at Oregon’s regional public colleges down more than 18 percent, while it’s up more than 17 percent at the state’s flagships. In 28 states, flagships have seen enrollment rise between 2010 to 2021, while regionals have trended down, according to a
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The good times/bad times dynamic is playing out elsewhere in the state, with total enrollment since 2010 at Oregon’s regional public colleges down more than 18 percent, while it’s up more than 17 percent at the state’s flagships. In 28 states, flagships have seen enrollment rise between 2010 to 2021, while regionals have trended down, according to a Chronicle analysis of U.S. Education Department data. Across all states, enrollment at 78 public flagships rose 12.3 percent from 2010 to 2021, the most recent year for which data is available. Enrollment at 396 public regional universities slumped more than 4 percent during the same period.
Enrollment is perhaps only the most tangible and consequential measure of the diverging fortunes of, and increasingly fierce competition between, flagships and regionals. Flagships typically dominate the attention of elected officials and ordinary citizens in their states. They’re the marquee institutions, the research centers, the academic powerhouses, the foundation of a statewide alumni base, and often the state’s athletics brand, too.
But the workhorses of public higher education in most states are the regional public universities, the less renowned four-year institutions with teaching missions that exist in the shadows of the flagships’ spotlight. And shifting demographics, reduced levels of state support, and hobbled state oversight have led many regional universities to suffer.
Losing even relatively few students can present challenges for a regional public college. Not only are many state-funding formulas based on enrollment, but with state dollars per full-time student effectively flat from two decades ago, public colleges are more dependent on tuition dollars than ever. “We’re asked to support students who have historically been unserved or underserved,” says Jesse Peters, Western Oregon’s president, “while at the same time we’re planning to reduce our spending, which in higher ed, is largely spending on employees.” Many of the cuts are likely to come in student-facing positions.
Competition for students and resources between flagships and regional colleges is nothing new, but it’s grown more lopsided than the jockeying that has gone on in the past, experts say. The divide between haves and have nots in public higher education is widening, making it harder for regional institutions to serve their mission.
In Oregon, the university system was dissolved in 2015 and the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission has little ability to curb the growth of larger institutions and protect the interests of regional campuses. “It’s kind of like The Hunger Games,” says Andrew Koricich, an associate professor of higher education at Appalachian State University, in Boone, N.C., and executive director of its Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges. Left to fend for themselves, many regional universities are losing enrollment and subsequently being forced to cut employees and programs, making them less able to recruit and retain students, making them more likely to lose more enrollment. “How,” Koricich asks, “are students supposed to be attracted to hollowed-out institutions?”
Even during the early years of the 21st century, flagships and regionals still operated in a growth mode premised on, and promising, a brighter future. “Not everybody’s getting all that they want, particularly from, let’s say, state budgets,” Thelin says of public institutions in those years. “But they’re all gaining, so you can live with the inequities, as long as your own institution is still growing and ascending.”
Competition between flagships and regional colleges is nothing new, but it’s grown more lopsided.
The 2008-9 recession devastated state support for higher ed and flattened the curve of long-term financial growth.
In 2003, local, state, and federal governments spent about $9,300, adjusted for inflation, on education appropriations per full-time equivalent, including financial aid, according to an analysis by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. In 2021, spending had only just caught up to the 2003 level.
The recession initially helped bolster enrollments, as companies shed jobs and students flocked to colleges to wait out the storm. But shifting demographics threaten the once seemingly bottomless bounty of traditional-age college students. Nathan D. Grawe, a professor of economics at Carleton College, has projected that more than half of the states will have 15-percent fewer collegebound students by 2029.
As public higher education grew during its long late-20th-century boom, it developed state-level organizing structures to help it grow and run — whether state coordinating boards, university systems, or master plans, such as the seminal Master Plan for Higher Education in California, 1960-1975. “In the ‘70s, they actually had a pretty good mediating presence,” Thelin says, but many have since been dissolved or grown ineffectual. And their powers always had some limits. Coordinating boards or system governing boards are typically appointed by legislators, and legislatures and boards alike are often full of alumni of their states’ major public universities, beneficiaries of their activities, and fans of their football and basketball teams. “Flagships could always run over them,” Thelin says.
If the flagship is gaining big enrollments in a state that is not having an overall growth in high-school graduates, it’s “poaching from the other institutions,” he says, “because it’s probably recruiting and enrolling students who probably were historically matched for the regionals.” Many state coordinating boards used to keep that poaching under control by negotiating with all the public colleges to set enrollment goals. Leaders could be penalized not only if they undershot them, but also if they exceeded them, Thelin says. Coordinating boards could also keep colleges from duplicating programs that existed at nearby institutions and prevent public colleges from establishing branch campuses were they might compete with existing institutions.
A Chronicle analysis of federal data showed, for example, that in Michigan, a state being hit hard by demographic shifts and with no central higher-ed authority, the flagship University of Michigan at Ann Arbor saw undergraduate enrollment rise 16 percent between 2010 and 2020. Over the same period, it fell at 11 of the state’s 12 other four-year public campuses. Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, between Ann Arbor and Detroit, lost 31 percent of its enrollment. Central Michigan University, in Mt. Pleasant, near the geographical center of the lower peninsula, lost 39 percent.
In some states, heightened competition is also affecting flagships as they vie with each other. Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, a 52-year old collaboration between two flagships that functioned as an open-access regional institution in the state’s capital, announced last year that its partnership would dissolve, and Indiana University and Purdue would both maintain presences in the city more closely tied to their own brands and agendas. Some public regionals, on the other hand, are seeing the need to cooperate. Pennsylvania, for example, is combining six of its regional universities into two new institutions, in hopes of keeping institutions with faltering enrollments open while continuing to serve those areas of the state.
But using the competition for students as a reason for regionals’ faltering is “a bit of a red herring,” Koricich says. Bringing in more students wouldn’t be so important to flagships or regional colleges if public higher education were adequately funded. With more public-college budgets dependent on tuition, increasing enrollment is the only reliable way to grow or, in many cases, innovate.
Regional universities have contributed to the lopsided competition with flagships through their own hopes to be more like mini-flagships. Most regional institutions started out as teachers’ colleges, with practical missions more akin to those of community colleges — providing access and affordable degrees to local residents. Over the late 20th century and into the early 21st, many regional institutions have undergone mission creep, adding graduate programs and other attributes more common to research universities. The tighter academic job market of the past several decades has filled the faculties of regionals with professors, and eventually administrators, educated at more-prestigious institutions, says Thelin, which creates great faculties but also a more aspirational internal culture.
States also need to take a more active role in protecting, and reimagining, the mission of the regional universities, Koricich believes. “There are communities across this country, including small cities, that will never have population growth ever again,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t need a college. It just means we have to think differently about what kind of college we need.”
Last fall, the University of Kentucky welcomed 6,120 freshmen, a record and about a 15-percent increase over the previous record in 2019. Eli Capilouto, the president, says he’s “not so certain we made a heavy dent into our regionals” to achieve that growth. Much of the university’s growth has come from nonresidents, he said. It has enrolled about 21,000 in-state students in the 2022-23 academic year, almost exactly what it enrolled in 2013-14, according to institutional data. The number of out-of-state students has grown, however, to 11,370 from 8,117 in 2013-14, an increase of 40 percent. Capilouto wonders if his institution isn’t benefiting from flagships in other states becoming more crowded and selective: “Are we getting those students who couldn’t get into Ohio State, but, gee, Kentucky’s not such a long drive?”
If a flagship is gaining big enrollments, it’s probably poaching students who were “historically matched for the regionals.”
Capilouto hears the concerns of his colleagues at Kentucky’s regional universities about their enrollments. Four of the state’s six regional institutions lost students over the past decade, according to a Chronicle analysis. The flagship enrolled about 6,100 freshmen last fall, and plans to enroll about that many this year, he says. And just because Kentucky hasn’t hurt for new students in recent years doesn’t mean that Capilouto and his administrators don’t “sit around, waiting anxiously,” wondering “what does our first-semester retention look like?” Serving more students these days means providing more supports and services, and hoping they help.
But Capilouto doesn’t rule out future growth for the flagship so long as it’s “smart growth,” he says. “We want to know that we do have the people and physical infrastructure in place to provide a quality education.”
The range of options afforded to Capilouto and the presidents of most flagships are broader than those available to the leaders of the nation’s regionals confronted with drops in enrollment, especially since those drops make everything about their jobs harder. When Jesse Peters, president of Western Oregon, showed up in Salem last summer to assume his new job, he hoped that his institution would be doing better than it has. About 50 percent of the university’s operating budget comes from the state, so last fall’s 7-percent enrollment drop left it with an $8-million deficit for the current year, on an annual operating budget of about $70 million. “When enrollment declines at a smaller regional university, it seems like that pain is felt very quickly and very seriously,” he says, “because we’re so dependent upon tuition dollars.”
A decade or more ago, regional institutions in a financial bind might have been able to economize on travel or nonessential positions. But after years of cutting and austerity, there’s little fat to trim. At Western Oregon, as enrollment has dropped, inflation has driven up the cost of essentials like energy, food, and construction materials, Peters says. “Putting a roof on a building to maintain it is more than double what it was a year ago.” The needs of the student populations that regionals often serve can also create additional expenses for these institutions, placing them under further financial strain.
Peters and other leaders at Western Oregon are considering how they might be able to build back their enrollment and educate more students. Recruiting more adult learners represents one possibility, but Peters says it isn’t clear that the university could make up the financial difference with this group alone. Working students often require substantial advising and academic support, and since they have busy lives off campus, they won’t help fill Western Oregon’s residence halls.
And then there’s paying to put new ideas into practice. “People can easily say, ‘Well, why don’t you pivot and do these other things?’ And it’s like, we would love to, but we’re also trying to figure out how to survive financially,” Peters says. “It’s not as if we’re not willing to do things differently. But what we need is enough funding to do it.”
There is precedent for one-time funding to bail out faltering institutions and pay for innovation, says Teresa M. Brown, vice president for academic innovation and transformation at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a membership organization for regional public universities. Most of the $76 billion dispensed to colleges through the federal Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund during the early phases of the Covid pandemic was intended to aid students and make up for the revenue colleges lost when they issued housing and dining refunds, but many institutions used some of the money to invest in upgrading their online programs or other improvements. Brown says that additional state funds to support colleges adapting to serving a new demographic or offering a new program — even one-time dollars — could pay off for states, colleges, and students alike. If the changes bring in new students, the investment supports itself.
Without investment or innovation, lagging regionals are likely to continue losing out to their flashier flagship siblings. And if more students bypass institutions like Western Oregon in favor of the flagship, Peters worries that an important resource for some of the state’s most vulnerable students will continue to weaken. “If we really are serious about increasing the numbers of students from first-generation families and underserved communities who obtain a college degree and change the trajectory of their lives, then the regional universities are the place where that happens,” he says. “Putting us in a position that makes us struggle to accomplish those goals is a sad thing.”
But maybe, rather than appealing to the referee, regional universities need to rethink the game. Before coming to the state-colleges group, Teresa Brown served as an administrator in the State University of New York and University of Wisconsin systems and has seen plenty of competition between public colleges. Given shifting demographics, she thinks regional public universities should be thinking hard about who they serve and how. “Do you, as an institution, try to compete with the flagship?” she says. “Or do you do what a lot of institutions are doing, which is to really be clear about what their mission is as a regional public, serving their particular region?”
Rather than looking to the flagship for cues, regional public colleges should perhaps look to community colleges for inspiration, Brown says. Focus on teaching and local work-force needs. First-time, full-time students are important, of course, but so are adult learners, a vital demographic to meet any state’s work-force goal, and a largely untapped source of enrollment gains. “I don’t believe that there’s a shift from something to something else, like we’re becoming something different,” Brown says. “It’s an embracing of the mission that has always been.”
Rather than looking to the flagship for cues, regional publics should perhaps look to community colleges for inspiration.
A good example of this embrace is the University of West Alabama, in tiny Livingston, near the Mississippi border. The institution sits in a swath of deep rural poverty. Its enrollment has fluctuated over the years, but it grew from 5,094 in 2010 to 5,734 in 2020, an increase of 13 percent, according to a Chronicle analysis of federal data. It did so, in part, by embracing a number of practices more typical of community colleges than of regional universities, according to Tina N. Jones, a professor of English and director of the university’s division of economic outreach and development.
While some regional universities focus on the work force in their areas, West Alabama offers seven two-year programs for credit, such as a popular certified-nursing-assistant program, as well as noncredit certificates. “Many four-year institutions let go of those,” Jones says, “and we never did.” Not only do such programs provide a low-investment path to a job for students, she adds, “some of them do go on and decide, Hey, this is my first step, and now I see that I can actually maybe go on to our two-year nursing program. And then maybe they go on to a four-year program.”
Sumter County, where West Alabama is located, and the surrounding region has lost more than a quarter of its population over the past 50 years, according to U.S. Census data, and shrinking rural communities often lack the kind of civic support that might help connect colleges and employers, to work on economic development in the region. “That’s where my division steps in,” she says. With six full-time staff members, the office does some of the work that the local or state government might otherwise do in courting potential businesses to move to the area. West Alabama participated in persuading Enviva, a company that produces pellets for wood stoves, to build a $180-million facility in Sumter County.
West Alabama also educates many adult learners. As flagships and regional institutions battle over new high-school graduates, degree completers and other adults looking for new careers or reskilling offer a huge opportunity — even as some states consolidate campuses in hopes of keeping them open.
To Koricich, the potential market of adult learners should help college leaders reframe their thinking. “There may be fewer students in graduating high-school cohorts,” he says, “but until your state has 100 percent of people who need a postsecondary credential holding one, you’re not at a shortage for students. Not even close.”
Brian O’Leary and Audrey Williams June contributed to this report.