While defending its plan to enroll 20,000 students by fall 2020, Appalachian State’s administration has tried to downplay the impact of its enrollment goals on the university and the broader community.
1. At the Nov. 22 board of trustees meeting, Chancellor Sheri Everts characterized the university’s recent growth as “slow and steady,” saying that this approach would continue next year. She also stated that last year student enrollment had grown by 1 percent, while the target for next year is 3.7 percent.
In raw numbers, total enrollment, according to the university’s institutional research office, grew by 172 students in the last year, while next year the university is seeking to enroll an additional 720 or 851 students (the two numbers the administration has cited). This means the number of anticipated new students is rising by between 318 percent and 395 percent.
Although much of this growth will be in online students, this does not change the raw numbers. The increase planned for next year is at least double (and often more) every annual increase since 2011, with the exception of 2017 — and even then the number of new students was only 516. Far from being “slow and steady,” the university’s enrollment goal for 2020 is fast and sudden.
2. The university has downplayed the consequences of enrollment growth for new student acceptance rates. At the Nov. 22 board of trustees’ meeting, the provost said that the university would be going “wider, not deeper.” However, the university’s institutional research data shows that the acceptance rate has increased as the university has grown, rising from 63 percent in 2012 to 77 percent in 2019.
It seems unlikely the university can grow significantly next year without a higher acceptance rate. This means Appalachian is becoming less selective, even though it has long touted its admissions selectivity. If the university has made a choice to be less selective in order to emphasize other priorities, it should communicate this.
3. The university has said it is investing in instruction to keep pace with growth. It has notably mentioned the creation of 10 new faculty lines. Yet these 10 lines, which will be funded by a tuition increase that goes into effect in fall 2020, will not result in new faculty on campus until fall 2021 at the earliest — a year after at least 720 new students are expected to enroll. In the meantime, growth will be handled by hiring faculty on contingent contracts or resorting to overloads. The university is not relying on tenure-track faculty to handle the additional students it plans to enroll.
4. Most importantly, it is widely recognized in higher education that we are on the edge of a demographic cliff, due to a decrease in the number of college students later in the next decade. A 2017 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education states: “The bottom line is there’s almost nothing that’s going to get us around the fact that, in the late 2020s, we should see really significant reductions in enrollment. If your strategy for this is to try to increase enrollments, the model suggests that that’s a bad idea.”
In short, Appalachian State’s administration has chosen to increase enrollment significantly several years ahead of a major demographic dip in student-age populations, in a way that is likely to result in lower selectivity, and plans to address the resulting extra instructional needs by employing more contingent faculty, at least for a year.
The university’s enrollment plan has generated considerable concern on campus and in the community. People are concerned about its impact on student wellbeing, traffic, pollution, institutional quality and other issues.
Appalachian’s administration may have good reasons for making these decisions. But at the very least, the administration has an obligation to communicate substantively and accurately with the campus and the local community.
The administration must understand that its goals are far more likely to succeed if it engages in a process that is collaborative, formalized and inclusive of all stakeholders.
Michael C. Behrent
Faculty Senate chairman
Appalachian State University