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Making Students Count

Updated: May 19, 2021

It will take some time to fully digest the details and consequences of the budget reduction announced by the Provost’s Office this week. One thing is clear: students are curiously absent from the university’s calculations. The email outlines three “fundamental questions” that guide the budget reduction, all of which focus on revenue and none of which account for our students, the campus experience, or the university’s mission.

The only place that students are hinted at in the budget reduction is in the assertion that declining enrollments have placed KU in an untenable situation. This claim does not accord with general trends, nor with KU’s relative situation during the pandemic. Over the past decade, enrollment at KU has never reached 23,000 nor fallen below 21,000. Compared to March 2020, KU saw a 3.8% drop in enrollments this spring. In contrast, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported a 5.9% nationwide average decline in enrollments. This represents the biggest drop in enrollment since the pandemic began. Meaning that as campus operations return to normal, many of our students are making decisions that lead them away from higher education. Further cuts—to departments, faculty, and programs—are likely to precipitate the very enrollment decline the Provost claims is her concern.

When considering these enrollment trends, race and gender matter. At the beginning of last year, the Board of Regents raised the problem of poor retention and graduation rates for Latinx students across Kansas. This spring, while national enrollments for White (8.5%), Black (8.8%), and Latinx (7.3%) students fell at similar rates, enrollments for Native Americans dropped by 13%. Equally worrisome, national enrollments for Black and Latinx men declined 14.3% and 12.6%, respectively. Thus the pandemic has only exacerbated the racial and socioeconomic disparities in our classrooms and our country; the effects will be felt for years to come.

These enrollment indicators provide an opportunity for creative and compassionate thinking. A recent article from Inside Higher Ed challenges university leaders to ask, “How do we get men of color back into our programs?” Relatedly, we might ask: How can KU use this moment of intense budget review to reinvest in the faculty, programs, and centers that support our students? How can KU put its resources to work for the students most in need of our support?

Students—not student-generated revenue—must count.

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