West Virginia University is not the only higher education institution in the state going through a challenging “rightsizing.” Shepherd University in Shepherdstown is also trying to figure out how to deal with a pending budget deficit, while simultaneously meeting the needs of its students and increasing enrollment.
Shepherd has long been a popular regional campus in the state’s eastern panhandle, just minutes away from fast-growing Berkeley County and a short drive from Maryland and Virginia. However, like many colleges, it has been hit hard by the demographic cliff and the pandemic.
This fall’s enrollment is about 3,200 students, up slightly from the last two years, but down about 1,000 students over the last 10 years. Meanwhile, costs continue to rise. Shepherd is facing a $6 million deficit over the next two years. The university has already identified $3.8 million in cost reductions, but more needs to be done, according to President Mary Hendrix.
“Shepherd University is undergoing an academic program prioritization analysis based on HEPC (Higher Education Policy Commission) guidelines,” Hendrix told me in an email. “We are ‘rightsizing’ our enterprise to meet the needs of our current student population.”
That means cuts. Forty-four staff positions, 16 faculty slots and four administration positions are being eliminated, largely through attrition, retirement or the cancelation of open positions.
The school has already announced the closure of its Martinsburg campus to save $300,000, and more reductions are coming through an “academic prioritization” process. The school describes that as “a strategic examination of all academic programs.” As a result, programs will continue at their current level, continue but with changes, or operate at a reduced level or discontinued with a teach-out plan.
Hendrix stressed that Shepherd is not alone. “Academic institutions across the country are undergoing similar assessments.”
Higher education leaders may have thought, or at least hoped, there would always be more students, but as Nathan Grawe explained in his book “The Agile College: How Institutions Successfully Navigate Demographic Changes,” the numbers don’t lie, and higher ed must adapt.
“As demographic forces promise to reshape the size and composition of future cohorts of college-going students, many institutions recognize the need to take proactive measures that ensure their sustainability and effectiveness for the future,” he wrote.
However, the future is not just about “rightsizing,” although that is a critical first step to offset deficits. Grawe writes that higher education leaders must rethink how they deliver the product in ways that are more attractive and compatible with the students of today to increase enrollment and improve retention.
Grawe believes college leaders who are willing to break the old molds will be better off. “It is possible to imagine thoughtful institutions coming through the trials of the next decade more vibrant and effective versions of themselves,” he wrote.
Hendrix wants her university to be among those. “Industry performs these types of strategic evaluations on a continual basis — if their goal is to achieve success,” she said.
This is the new reality in higher education, and as Professor Grawe said in a recent interview, colleges must adapt.
“All students are experiencing a fundamental change in how they engage with learning. By upending common practice, the pandemic has invited an entire cohort of students to rethink what forms of education work best for them,” Grawe said.
Frankly, the “rightsizing” is, in some ways, the easy part. The real challenge is for higher ed to figure out how to meet students where they are rather than rigidly dictating to them what a college education must be.