By Albert Chang-Yoo
The University of Puget Sound is in the midst of a financial recovery process after 2 years of low retention, under-enrollment and staff turnover. According to Provost Laura Behling, the University is equipped to handle the tumult.
Behling was appointed Provost in 2019 by President Isiaah Crawford. Since then, University enrollment declined as the Covid-19 pandemic hit colleges nationwide. Enrollment dropped from 2,608 students in Fall 2019 to 2,130 in Fall 2020.
“Certainly the pandemic really changed our enrollment, but also I would say that it changed a lot of colleges and universities enrollments,” Behling stated. “Students would take a gap year because they didn’t want us to do their first year in college online… that’s probably a great experience for them, but we would have liked to have had them on the campus.” Nationally, college enrollment declined by over 1 million students.
Behling emphasized that under-enrollment goes beyond the pandemic: “there are just fewer high school students. And that’s coming in the next mid to late 2020s. And that’s something that we’re watching out for, too.”
The so-called “demographic cliff” is the expected decline in higher education enrollment following low national birth rates, which plummeted during the 2008 recession. Nationally, enrollment is expected to decline 15% by 2025.
The slide in enrollment will make Behling’s job much harder. “When you’re faced now with hundreds of thousands of fewer students that even exist, it just makes us have to work harder and up our game to make sure that people know who we are and the kind of education that we offer,” Behling says.
As a small liberal arts school, Puget Sound is in a unique position. Behling believes that many families don’t recognize the value the University offers. “When you factor the various kinds of say, scholarship aid that we have and other opportunities, we come out really looking good… so it requires us to just be better communicators, and explainers, and describers,” she says.
This semester, the University of Puget Sound has also returned to in-person campus tours, with increased frequency and group size. “It’s been great to see the traffic pickup and see people going out on campus visits and tours again,” Behling says. “I think we’re going to see positive dividends from people being able to visit here and to talk to our students and to talk to our faculty and our staff as they’re making decisions about college.” It remains to be seen whether enrollment numbers will stabilize next fall.
Student activists have been critical of the University’s focus on recruitment. One of the key aspects of the MIBU (Multi-Identity Based Union) demands is repurposing the Welcome Center into a Justice and Equity Center, which has been denied.
Behling believes the University’s mission can balance both recruitment and retention: “everything we do, should be and I think is guided by what is the experience that our students are having on this campus…we want to make sure it’s attractive to students, right, [for] students who are here but also students who will be here 10 years from now.”
Behling is confident in the University’s ability to tackle the challenges. “We are an excellent academic institution. We have excellent students who are here. I think we run a very good operation at the university and are very thoughtful about the ways that we spend money,” Behling said. Puget Sound’s endowment is valued at over $450 million, and about 4% of it is spent annually. Despite under-enrollment, the endowment gained nearly $100 million in value over the past two years.
One impending change is the Comprehensive Program Review, which was discussed even before the start of the pandemic and is in committee. In the coming months, the program review will finalize its recommendations to improve University functions. Although there is some worry among faculty about the changes, Behling asks faculty to both “trust the process as well as trust the people who are in the process.”
Despite student pushback and faculty anxieties, Behling remains optimistic. “I hope we get new ideas, new programs, new ways of doing things out of this and that we are not afraid to think differently and take some calculated risks about thinking about what we do,” Behling said.