Numbers Game: NMC reduces budget, watches enrollment

With enrollment figures potentially down for the fall semester thanks to COVID-19, Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) is leaning on its flagship programs – and its safety-driven reopening plan – to remain an attractive option to prospective students.

Nationwide, lagging enrollment figures plague virtually all higher education institutions. According to a recent McKinsey survey, 86% of college presidents rank fall enrollment numbers at the top of their pandemic-related worries lists.

Those concerns are well-founded: A survey conducted in the spring by higher education research company SimpsonScarborough found that four-year colleges were at risk of losing up to 20% of their fall enrollment. Based on the survey, 10% of college-bound high school seniors who had been planning to attend four-year institutions in the fall have chosen alternate plans, such as community colleges or gap years. Twenty-six percent of currently enrolled college students said they were considering not returning to their colleges or universities in the fall.

NMC has responded to lower enrollment rates – both for its upcoming fall semester and its currently in-progress summer term – by reducing its budget. For the 2020-21 fiscal year, which runs through June 30, 2021, the college has an approved budget of $42.72 million – down from $46.62 million in 2019-20.

Neibauer

According to Vice President for Student Services and Technologies Todd Neibauer, the challenge at the moment is predicting what things will look like – and what student mindsets will be – come September.

“Colleges and universities right now are adjusting,” Neibauer said. “A lot of them announced their reopening plans early in the summer, but now they’re adjusting to what they think the reality is going to be.”

He added that students themselves are split on whether online or in-person learning is the preferable option at the moment – another factor that could still change before the school year starts.

“It really depends on the student, on their particular preference for learning style, and on their desire to stay safe,” he said.

Most colleges and universities in the state, including University of Michigan and Michigan State University, have opened campus for the fall term albeit with adjusted school calendars, masking policies, a mix of online and in-person classes.

When asked whether the uncertainty about university fall semester plans might benefit smaller and closer-to-home institutions like NMC, Neibauer said he has heard anecdotally that students are coming “because they don’t want to go back to their university.”

The college is seeing both new transfers (those who originally attended college someplace else but are coming to NMC for the fall) and returning transfers (those who went to NMC initially, then transferred somewhere else, and now are transferring back to NMC).

While NMC is getting some new students from transfers, Neibauer says those gains don’t make up for the enrollments the college has lost.

Some students, he notes, have elected not to come back in the fall because they aren’t interested in an all-online college experience. Others have lost jobs or had their economic situations change due to the pandemic – to the point where they and can no longer afford tuition.

Neibauer thinks NMC’s enrollment numbers could see an uptick between now and the first day of classes. If other colleges or universities in the state decide to scrap their on-campus plans in favor of all-online approaches, more students may opt for a less-expensive community college option. NMC takes enrollment up until the fall semester begins.

NMC’s biggest degree programs – and the fact that some of them are unique to the college – could play a role in holding the institution’s enrollment and revenue levels relatively stable, Neibauer says.

The Great Lakes Maritime Academy is one of just seven maritime academies in the United States and accounts for just under 10% of the NMC student population. The college’s aviation program, one of just two in the state – the other being Western Michigan University – is another differentiator. Neibauer says these programs draw students from all over the country and are unlikely to see enrollment fluctuations due to COVID-19.

The school’s single biggest degree pathway, meanwhile – nursing – could see a popularity boost in light of the global public health crisis. In a June U.S. News & World Report article, the heads of several nursing schools throughout the country reported higher-than-usual application volumes for their nursing programs.

In an average year, Neibauer says 10-11% of NMC students are on pathways toward the college’s associate’s degree in nursing.

NMC’s reopening plan, which was announced in mid-June, is more conservative than that of many larger colleges and universities. Wherever possible, Neibauer says that NMC will continue to deliver instruction in online or live-streamed capacities.

In some cases, hybrid in-person and online structures will be utilized, such as with courses that incorporate both lecture sessions (which can be delivered virtually) and hands-on lab components (which cannot).

A small number of NMC programs require predominantly face-to-face learning – whether because of accreditation regulations (such as the college’s police academy) or because of the nature of the degree itself (such as the Great Lakes Maritime Academy).

“We’re trying to make sure that our existing students can still come back and progress,” Neibauer said of the college’s reopening plan. “And for those who maybe are not interested in heading off and paying a larger dollar amount for university if they’re able to fill up some courses with us, that’s also a segment that we’re starting to see more of.”

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