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'Unlimited growth is not possible': Enrollment at NAU declines for first time in 14 years

For the first time in 14 years, Northern Arizona University's enrollment declined this fall.

The drop fits into a larger trend of college enrollment falling nationwide as the birth rate has gone down.

But while other states have seen drops, NAU's decline is the first for a public university in Arizona, which has enjoyed significant population growth. And because Arizona's university system — and NAU in particular — relies heavily on tuition revenue and enrollment growth, a decline could signal trouble on the horizon if that model doesn't change.

"Now we're realizing that unlimited growth is not possible," said Gerald Wood, a NAU professor who is also the president of the American Federation of Teachers union at the university. "It's not realistic. And I think that's met a lot of adjustments in terms of how universities function."

Larry Penley, the chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, said NAU is "heavily dependent" on tuition, even more so than Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, who have more research funding. 

At NAU last year, an inflated revenue projection based on an enrollment target that wasn't met caused an $11 million budget shortfall. This year, the university adjusted its budget 0.5% lower overall, or about $3 million. There have not been any layoffs or hiring freezes as a result, a university spokeswoman said.

NAU President Rita Cheng said the university will be analyzing its enrollment situation for potential ways to change, and the colleges already are spending less. 

"We went out to all the colleges and said, we're going to budget very conservatively this year," Cheng said in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

"We're looking like we're going to have less students ... which means we have less sections, we have less instructional need, we have less counseling need, we have less everything.

"And so everybody's just tightening their belt that way. I have not heard of anybody saying that, that our adjustments, of half a percent, have meant any issues relative to their day-to-day life."

But the declining enrollment could mean some programs are eliminated, NAU Provost Diane Stearns told the Arizona Board of Regents at a meeting in Flagstaff last month.

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"We have begun the difficult internal conversations and readiness around refreshing or dropping our noncompetitive programs," Stearns said.

Nearly all of the regents' two days of discussions and votes in Flagstaff were streamed to the public on the internet. One portion was not: NAU's financial review, though it was open to those who came in person.

An Arizona Board of Regents spokeswoman said that portion of the meeting was held in a different location, which made streaming more difficult. 

The Republic obtained a video copy of the financial review through a public records request. 

Members of NAU's faculty say the enrollment decline and budget constraints have them concerned about what the future holds for the university.

"The message has been quite clear that due to drops in enrollment, our budgets have become constrained," said Gioia Woods, a professor and the president of the Faculty Senate. 

"So faculty have increasing anxiety over what the drop in enrollment means for our working conditions and for the way that we can best serve students, because faculty working conditions translate directly into student learning conditions."

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Why is enrollment declining?

Cheng pointed to three causes of the undergraduate enrollment decline this year.

NAU's international student enrollment declined by more than 100 students. Kuwait, a major source of international students for NAU, sent significantly fewer this year. NAU officials said that was because the Kuwaiti government believes the school has too high a number of their students already.

There was also a drop of about 100 students in the university's hotel and restaurant management program. Cheng said when the university reached out to students who stopped taking classes, they said they had found good jobs and wanted to keep working. 

NAU's satellite campuses throughout the state are the third area that saw decline. About 100 fewer students are attending the community campuses, Cheng said.

Enrollment goals set by the regents call for aggressive growth. By 2025, the number of undergraduates should be 30,312. The number of graduate students should be 4,597.

This year, the number of undergraduates across NAU's campuses decreased from 27,078 to 26,513, NAU documents show.

To meet the regents' goal of 30,312, the undergraduate population would need to grow by 14% in the next five years.

Nationally, college enrollment declined this year for the eighth year in a row, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

There was a bright spot for NAU: Enrollment for graduate students increased this year by nearly 6%. 

"I still believe we can reach the ABOR (Arizona Board of Regents) goal, but not with the traditional undergraduate resident population here growing double digits every year," Cheng said. "There's just not that many people."

Student retention also improved year over year by more than 4%.

ASU has seen increases in enrollment annually during the past 14 years, though much of its growth in the past six years has come from its online programs. Enrollment on the Tempe campus, ASU's largest, has decreased in the past few years.

At UA, the university has not seen any overall enrollment declines in the same time period. Enrollment has increased slowly but steadily.

Professors worry about the future

For faculty, the budget woes and declining enrollment play into a communication problem between administrators and professors that was highlighted in a report last year from the university's accreditation body, the Higher Learning Commission. 

If there are going to be program cuts, it needs to be a decision discussed by faculty, staff and administrators together, faculty say.

Stearns, the provost, also said as much to the regents last month.

Cheng told The Republic any changes will be considered with faculty. 

"Everybody cares deeply about student success, and everybody feels really, really a powerful feeling that NAU is special and distinct," Cheng said. "And so we start there. And then where we might disagree on tactics or approaches, we use that platform of student success and NAU being distinct as being the most important."

Wood, the union president, said there's a perception now of greater job insecurity among faculty and staff given the enrollment decline and budget constraints.

And, while the university has talked more and more about student success, there's not a lot of talk about what makes faculty and staff successful, he said.

"We've got to invest, not only in our students, for sure, but we have to invest in faculty, staff and other folks that are part of the university," Wood said. 

Woods, the Faculty Senate president, said she has heard from faculty that they're concerned about the amount of time they have to engage with students. The faculty is spread thin and is asked to take on increasing duties, like roles on committees and work that would normally be covered by staff members.

"I think budget pressures and increasing workload have made it more difficult for many faculty to deliver on those kinds of really important relationships (with students)," Woods said. "I think that we still do an excellent job with it. But it's becoming very challenging."

Kimberly Ott, an NAU spokeswoman, said via email that the university is continuing to "invest in the programs, people, and places that reflect our efforts to provide the education our students expect, and address the changes in the state, national, and global workforce."

Class sizes haven't increased and the university's student-to-faculty ratio hasn't changed, Ott said. 

How students are affected

Faculty and administrators at NAU point to the school's small-campus feel and high level of engagement between students and faculty as positive attributes the school has that others don't. They highlight research opportunities for undergraduates that are attractive to potential students.

Losing those opportunities and that personal feel would be a mistake, they say. 

The university's student newspaper, the Lumberjack, has reported on a few areas where students are seeing the effects of budget constraints. 

NAZ Today, the school's broadcast program, was cut to two live shows a week from four, the Lumberjack reported

"From the outset of the semester, buzz about budget cuts has been floating around campus," one story read.

Some students told the Lumberjack they were concerned the budget woes could affect their opportunities in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. 

Sanjam Ahluwalia, the director of the Women's and Gender Studies program, scrambled this summer to find a professor for two classes this fall so students wouldn't experience any disruptions to their scheduled courses.

A highly qualified professor was on a one-year position last year and was set to teach two classes in the program this fall, but Ahluwalia said she was not allowed to hire the person back.

She found a master’s student to teach the two classes last minute and is co-teaching one of the upper-division classes herself. She’s not sure yet how the spring courses will be covered.

She asked administrators if the inability to hire back the one-year position professor was budget-related, but didn’t get an answer. Ott, the university spokeswoman, said the issue was "not at all related to the budget" and that the process to continue employment wasn't followed. 

But, Ahluwalia said, the professor with the one-year position would have been paid more than the instructor who is now teaching the courses instead.

“It’s been a royal mess,” she said.

Ahluwalia said it was difficult and troubling to change who teaches a class so soon before the semester started. And she worries about the long-term impacts on enrollment, retention and faculty turnover.

Still, she believes the students in these courses are getting a “fabulous experience,” with an instructor who is working hard to teach them well.

She added, though, “This is not sustainable.”

NAU's new marketing push

To try to change the trend, the university has started a new marketing campaign. 

The tagline: "Bring your aspirations," an appeal to the individualized options available to students and the focus on how you, the potential student, are the central part of the university's purpose.

Some worry that the pitch is too generic.

At the regents meeting, Regent Lyndel Manson questioned whether marketing NAU for its research would be successful, given the larger research footprints of Arizona State University and University of Arizona.

The campaign didn't highlight the access to the outdoors, something Flagstaff's mountain campus has that ASU and UA don't, she said.

"This place, this mountain, with four seasons, with access to the outdoors, is one of the primary draws of this institution. That’s what captivates people when they walk on this campus. So that concerns me," Manson said.

The university has defended the campaign by saying the landscape is not NAU's only draw, especially at its other sites throughout the state. 

But the campaign is necessary to help brand NAU at a time of increased competitiveness, Cheng said.

"Some of this is to grab attention, and I think we've been successful at that point. Whether you like it or not, we've grabbed the attention," she said.

The university will assess whether the campaign works as it plays out, she said. 

Penley, the Regents chairman, said the marketplace will only grow more competitive in the coming years as the share of students declines, though universities don't have to accept their fate.

But an effort is needed for NAU to distinguish its brand more clearly, he said.

"Telling that story effectively is what we must do, both NAU and board, in my view, to actually overcome what is a factor that drives enrollment lower for any school in the country at this point, especially a school like Northern Arizona University," he said.

Cheng said the public shouldn't be concerned about NAU's ability to bounce back. They have all the mechanisms in place to succeed, she said, like online programs, sites outside their main campus and programs designed for non-traditional students.

"I feel like we're well positioned to address the changing environment," Cheng said.

The declining birth rate doesn't mean a school has to decline in enrollment, Penley said. A university can stay stable or grow slightly still, he said. 

"But you have to do all the right things — the graduation rate, student experience, degree programs that are attractive, and a marketing and brand approach that really shows students and their families that this is a school that meets their students' needs," he said.

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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