PLYMOUTH, Wis. — Declining enrollment affects all sectors of higher education, but most notably, private colleges. Often, they are more expensive than public institutions and technical colleges.  

Public universities rely on government funding, while private colleges rely on tuition and endowments.   

What You Need To Know

  • Private college enrollment decreased by 7.5% over the past four years in Wisconsin, on par with the UW- System

  • Lakeland University's budget is $4.5 million less than last academic year

  • Most funding for private colleges comes in the form of need-based aid, which averages less than $10,000 per student

With the conversation surrounding affordability of higher education nationally, private colleges in Wisconsin are taking a closer look at how to recruit students.  

With the abrupt closure of Cardinal Stritch this past May, they are also looking at their own finances and areas of concern.

“The budget we had approved before last year versus where we are today is about $4.5 million less, so we’re talking about a 15% decrease,” said Beth Borgen, President of Lakeland University. “We were fortunate we only had to cut 7 positions this year, and we took a strong stance in several areas that we hope will just be on an interim basis.” 

St. Norbert College in De Pere announced layoffs this week. The communications department sent Spectrum News 1 a statement, confirming the decision. It said, in part:

“We have identified ways to reduce costs through a mix of operating and personnel reductions. Because two-thirds of our operating budget funds personnel costs, we weren’t able to avoid a reduction in our workforce. Twenty-nine of our valued colleagues were immediately impacted by position cuts. Twelve of our colleagues will finish this semester, at the end of the academic year, or at the end of 2024.”

Eric Fulcomer is the president of the Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

He said the UW System saw a 7.5% drop in enrollment over the last four years. He said the state’s private college sector is on par with that percentage, as is the nation.

“We’re concerned about the trend that’s happening with the demographic changes, the demographic decline and it’s certainly a buyer’s market,” Fulcomer said. “Any school that’s tuition dependent that doesn’t have a large endowment is susceptible to the changes in demographic decline.”

Fulcomer said he does not foresee any of the other 22 colleges within WAICU getting to the point that Cardinal Stritch did. Despite that prediction, he said all the WAICU colleges are assessing budgets and available reserves. 

“All of them are looking at here’s what’s happening over the next several years and here’s how much cash we have on hand to deal with any type of shift in enrollment,” Fulcomer said.

The private college sector also needs more funding for financial aid, he said. Fulcomer said most of the funding for private colleges comes in the form of need-based aid, which averages less than $10,000 per student.  

“For example, the UW System gets about $120,000 from the state for every student they educate,” he said. “So, the impact on enrollment declines is larger at schools that are in the private sector.”

Leadership within all the higher education sectors is working together with lawmakers in Madison on legislation that would modernize the financial aid formula. 

“The state legislature did not increase our funding so, all of us are static to what we were for the last biennium,” Fulcomer said. “We are now the lowest average aid award at the state level in the Midwest.”     

Colleges across the board are taking innovative measures, Fulcomer said, to address declining enrollment and appeal to what students are interested in.  

“Marian University just added construction management,” he said. “Concordia in Mequon is adding engineering and we’re also adding graduate programs and working with adult students.”

Marian University declared a state of emergency when Cardinal Stritch shut down.

For Borgen, the reality of working with a balanced budget this year is welcomed.

“We’re headed in the right direction,” she said. “We had to get through a difficult year, as we saw CARES Act funding and HEERF (Higher Education Emergency Relief) funding dry up, we made some decisions and we’re excited about this coming year.”

Enrollment this fall at Lakeland University’s main campus in Sheboygan is estimated to be 661. Since a notable drop during the pandemic, it has slowly increased over the past three academic years.