Mitchell Chapman: MCLA must address falling enrollment

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PITTSFIELD — 1,277. According to a factbook published by the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts' Office of Institutional Research, that was the undergraduate student population at the college last fall.

Eight and a half years ago, that number stood at 1,721. Since I enrolled at the college as an undergraduate student during the fall of 2014, that population has decreased by almost 300. Between fall 2014 and fall 2018, the college lost on average 71 undergraduate students a year, with the college seeing a difference of 130 fewer students between fall 2017 and fall 2018, with fall 2014-15 and fall 2017-18 being particularly bad periods of time for the college, representing 6.7 and 9.2 percent losses in the undergraduate student population. And these numbers are expected to slip further, with the college's student government cutting club budgets by 25 percent next year as they are anticipating an undergraduate population of 1,100 students.

That's abysmal.

Public liberal arts college are somewhat of an oddity, with MCLA being one of 29 public colleges in in the country that are a part of the Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges, with there being just over 500 liberal arts colleges in general in the U.S. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, three percent of college students attend a liberal arts school, and it is noteworthy that these institutions come in many different shapes and sizes, including: "private and public; secular and religiously-affiliated; co-ed and women's; independent and part of larger universities; purely undergraduate and with grad programs; small (under 1,000 students) and large (up to 9,000)," according to schoolintheusa.com. Even among other four-year public liberal arts colleges, comparing MCLA to others is like comparing apples to oranges due to its unique community, cultural resources, and large variety of degree programs, something that MCLA takes advantage of but could be leveraged more to help it stand out in the sea of higher-education institutions.

But whatever way you spin it, MCLA needs to address its downward enrollment trend.

If the 1,100 working number for fall 2020's expected undergraduate enrollment is to be believed, it would mark a 600 student loss over a 10-year period in the college's total undergraduate enrollment. The college, regardless of its status as a public institution, cannot afford to lose another 600 students in 10 years without major consequences.

FAILURE TO REPLACE

When we talk about lost numbers, we're not talking about a mass exodus of the student population — that happens naturally every year as students graduate — but rather, we're seeing a failure for the college to replace the numbers it loses naturally, and it starts with admissions for first year students, who provide most of the new enrollment on a per-yer basis for the college.

The starting freshmen population represents most of the starting enrollment figures for any graduating class, largely fueled by hundreds of high school graduates. Graduating classes also include non-traditional students and transfer students, and get depleted by students not graduating on time, students completing their degrees sooner or later than expected, students dropping out, and students transferring to other colleges, and can only be replenished by students transferring into the college and from students from other graduating classes that either fall behind or rise up in their studies.

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For a small public college like MCLA, that starting enrollment number for incoming freshman is crucial, as even a big freshmen class will get whittled down to about half at the college after four years (MCLA's four-year retention rate is about 50 percent, with its four-year graduation rate about 10 percent lower), with a small class doomed to only get smaller.

MCLA's freshman classes over the last four years constitute a see-saw that that has been gradually going down. While 2014 and 2016 had relatively large undergraduate freshman classes of 352 and 327 (excluding transfers) respectively, they where followed in 2015 and 2017 by sharp dips of 270 and 289, with 2018's number being 262. The admission trends also reveal that fewer people are applying to MCLA and more applicants are accepted, but a lower percentage of those accepted applicants chose to attend the college, as in 2014, 2,066 people applied as first-time freshmen, 1,493 were accepted and 352 enrolled; in 2015, 2,091 applied, 1,535 were accepted and 270 enrolled; in 2016, 2,013 applied, 1,551 were accepted and 327 enrolled; in 2017, 1,946 applied, 1,494 were accepted and 289 enrolled; and in 2018, 1,931 applied, 1,651 were accepted and 262 enrolled. MCLA's transfer student population has also seen a similar trend, as 302 students applied in 2014, 289 were accepted, and 164 enrolled, and in 2018, 242 applied, 228 were accepted, and 114 enrolled.

CHANGE IN STRATEGY

Monetarily, this has impacted the college, as the factbook also reveals a steady $2 million per year decrease in the college's revenues in the last three fiscal years, with the the college running a $2 million deficit last fiscal year.

MCLA enrolls some 500 Berkshire County students every year. It's one of the most important cultural institutions in North Adams and Berkshire County in general, and the affordable education it provides has helped thousands, myself included. But it will need to do something to stop its downward enrollment trend, or it will be forced to downsize its programs and staff, negatively affecting the quality of the education it provides. And while it is way too soon to lump it in with the likes of Southern Vermont College, Green Mountain College and Newbury College — private liberal arts colleges that have shut their doors — its public nature does not grant it immunity from mergers and consolidation, something that I fear might be in MCLA's future unless it manages to catch itself before the college finds itself in a death spiral.

MCLA needs to gain stability, and to do that it needs to consistently draw in large graduating classes from an ever-shrinking population of college-aged kids. It will probably require a change in strategy to find a way for MCLA to stand out from the sea of other colleges and allow it to tap into populations it currently does not reach. Increased, focused outreach beyond the Northeast might yield promising results.

But with over 100 years of being an educational institution under its belt, I think MCLA has it in itself to do what it needs to to succeed. I hope it does.

MCLA gave me four irreplaceable years and helped me start my career, and I hope it is able to do the same for others for years to come.

Mitchell Chapman is a page designer/copy editor, freelance writer and a member of the MCLA Class of 2018. While at the college, he served as the editor of its student newspaper, The Beacon, and was a student trustee.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Newbury College in Brookline will be closing after commencement this year.


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