Evergreen State College warns of 18% drop in enrollment next year

I’ve been waiting for this story for months but missed it last week when it finally appeared. President George Bridges of Evergreen State College has warned his school that enrollment may drop sharply next year. From the College Fix:

President George Bridges has told the campus community that the school’s 3,800 student population is predicted to hover at about 3,100 when the 2018-19 school year begins. This 700-student loss represents an 18.5 percent decrease.

This estimate sent shock waves among faculty, and some speculate it spurred an anonymous call for Bridges’ resignation by way of flyers recently inserted into faculty mailboxes declaring “Please Resign,” among other disparaging comments…

An official with Evergreen State who agreed to an interview with The College Fix on the condition of anonymity emphasized that Bridges’ estimated enrollment numbers are “for the purposes of planning” and a “projection that will not get better only if nothing is done to change it.” He likened it to a “worst-case scenario.”

Recall that Evergreen announced enrollment had dropped about 5% for the current academic year. That relatively small drop resulted in a hiring freeze and a $2.1 million budget deficit. So you can imagine what an 18.5% drop on top of that would do. Even if this really is a worst case scenario and the actual enrollment turns out better than expected, the trend definitely looks bad. Would a 10% drop and another huge deficit be considered good news at this point?

We’ve seen this same pattern before. After the University of Missouri campus was rocked by Black Lives Matter protests, enrollment at the school dropped sharply the following year (23%) and the year after that (16%). The New York Times pointed out that the school had been growing before the disruption led to the shuttering of dorms and mass layoffs:

Before the protests, the university, fondly known as Mizzou, was experiencing steady growth and building new dormitories. Now, with budget cuts due to lost tuition and a decline in state funding, the university is temporarily closing seven dormitories and cutting more than 400 positions, including those of some nontenured faculty members, through layoffs and by leaving open jobs unfilled.

Last fall, Slate looked at the so-called Mizzou effect and found there was evidence it was real, at least at Mizzou. The piece suggested evidence for a Mizzou effect at other schools was mixed at best:

It’s hard enough to get a handle on these sorts of statistical effects in enrollment ex post facto, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Doing so in real time is pretty much impossible. “I don’t think we can dismiss the potential causality [of the Mizzou Effect],” he told me. “There’s no question that campus turmoil of any kind is not a selling point for parents.” But if the effect exists, he’s inclined to think that its amplitude would vary greatly from one institution to another and that its duration would be short, as a rule. It’s likely to be little more than a “hiccup,” he said.

This strikes me as a less than serious argument. Of course disruptions to enrollment are not going to be permanent. As the school recovers, assuming it doesn’t have a repeat of the same behavior, people will gradually put the disruption behind them. Ten years from now, this could look like a blip in the rearview mirror for Evergreen.

That doesn’t mean the disruption is a “hiccup.” If Evergreen State College does see another enrollment drop of 18.5% or even 8%, the impact on the school is going to be significant. Jobs will be lost, money will be tight, and future plans will be put on hold. Awareness that the entire organization is struggling to survive may cause an increased focus on performance over protest. In short, Evergreen may well recover in a few years but only by putting this mess behind them.

Former Evergreen provost Michael Zimmerman told the College Fix, “The enrollment crisis at Evergreen, and make no mistake about it, it is a crisis, will not be fixed until the actions of last spring are acknowledged and their underlying causes addressed.” He added, “A fix, if even possible after the damage already done, will come only be returning Evergreen to its roots as a college steeped in the concept of open inquiry inherent in a true liberal arts education.”

David Strom 4:41 PM on September 26, 2022