|A Mountaineer Stands At The Edge Of The Enrollment Cliff
May 5, 2023
Back in 2009, I was asked to be a member of the West Virginia University Department of English Advisory Committee. As part of our two days of meetings in Morgantown, we started with a general discussion of the University as a whole. We were told that WVU had about 29,000 students and planned to grow to some number in the mid 30,000s (my apologies, I have no notes and don't remember specific numbers). In 1986, when I left WVU upon completion of my M.A. in English, about 17,000 students made up the total enrollment.
As I sat in the newly renovated Colson Hall, a huge step up, both literally and figuratively, from the Frankenstein monster that had been Stansbury Hall (at the bottom of the hill where Colson Hill stood magnificently at the top, and in the middle of the campus), I had to ask our hosts, "My God, what is too much growth?"
With its hills, WVU does not lend itself to easy land grabs to build more university-owned housing, so much of this student population growth was being found off-campus, huge blocks of apartments in what had once been residential areas, or, worse, in what had once been woods and fields. The sleepy town I loved and had grown up in was long gone, much of the natural beauty replaced by ugly aluminum siding and beat-up couches (ready to burn) on the sidewalks.
More importantly, even at that time, I knew that if the flagships kept aggressively doubling their student enrollment (to simplify the math for across the country) that the rest of us (I represented a private university at the time) were screwed.
As far as I can tell, WVU never even got close to that mythical mid 30,000s. They appear to got close to 30K by 2012, but generally stayed flat and even lost over a 1000 students even before the pandemic (I am using this WVU Enrollment report for my research). Well, this week, I guess we finally got an answer to my question when the bow-tied, seemingly immortal E. Gordon Gee, President of WVU, announced intentions for the University to scale back because of a projected decrease of 5000 students in enrollment over the next ten years.
Generally, this is hardly news. At SMC we have been tracking this declining high school enrollment for a decade. Fewer kids have led to fewer potential college students. Then, you throw in the rhetoric for many years that college is too expensive and doesn't lead to jobs, and the potential college enrollees continue to plummet. I suppose the only news here is that Gee is a high-profile leader at a major Research One institution admitting this.
No specifics have been announced yet, but as you can imagine, there is a lot of angst, especially when $75 million is supposed to be cut. I wonder how many new programs have been launched since my 2009 visit, all cloaked in the promise of this additional enrollment. What initiatives have been boosted in resources to encourage better retention for groups of students less and less prepared for college, let alone college in a sprawling mountainous town famous for its partying and its almost sick devotion to the football and basketball teams? What buildings were in line after Colson Hall to get re-faced, to provide better facilities for these additional students (and likewise additional faculty and staff), but will now fall into disrepair like my beloved Stansbury Hall did in the 1980s?
Think about it. If the universities with all the advantages already built in by a brand sharply crafted through the predominance of sports, cutting-edge research, generally isolated community, away from urban centers, with one of the most famous University Presidents of his time, can't grow, how will a private school, similar to one I represented in 2009, stay afloat? I wrote recently about the closing of Finlandia here in Michigan, but there will be countless others, faith-based institutions, liberal arts institutions, regionals, even community colleges, that will all fall before the behemoths like WVU Why would anyone want to be a University or College President right now? Odds are you might be that institution's last President ever.
As a loyal Mountaineer, although slightly less blindly loyal the last decade, this all depresses me, but it is a reminder of the lives of real Mountaineers. Interestingly, this week news broke about a mountain-climber, a college professor, of all things, dying while trying to scale Mt. Everest. I suppose his body will not easily be brought down and will lie there with the other dead mountain-climbers who overestimated their abilities to get to the precipice.
Mountaineers, Knights, Panthers, Tigers, Fighting Irish, Trojans, Redhawks, Spartans, all of us, there is a lesson here. Just because something can be done doesn't mean it has to be done. Restraint early on might save us from being dead hulks on mountainsides, campus buildings empty and in disarray as colleges close.
Sadly, while I write I am sure there is another mountain-climber barely noticing the freshly dead body as he or she continues up Mount Everest. In my world, that is another President somewhere announcing enrollment growth as the only way to stay alive. They won't be wrong. Like the mountain-climber, they'll just be rolling the dice in the harshest of elements.