Dunn responds; numbers are solid

Randy Dunn
University President

I’m taking the unusual practice (for me, anyway) of preparing this response to The Murray State News editorial of Oct. 7, “Up, up and dismay.” I think last week’s editorial was short-sighted as it ignored a number of compelling points that warrant a rebuttal of sorts.

The underlying premise of the editorial, it seems, is that the resources we are investing in student recruitment and growing enrollment are ill-spent, creating a zero-sum game that is detrimental to the University (i.e., if Enrollment Management is getting additional resources, they must be getting taken from somewhere else). This is not the case.

The suggestion in the editorial that pushing moderate enrollment growth and related planning these past few years is somehow contrary to effective operations is wrong. At least to me, when the editorial states “…it seems the money could have been better spent in other areas…” that appears to be what The Murray State News is saying.

I ask readers to remember where we were just three years ago. The University’s official census count was 10,022 students. The trajectory we were on back then would have had us slipping below 10,000 by today, in the range of 9,500, if that trend hadn’t been reversed.

For 2011-12, our final number will instead come in right around 10,600 (the official count for this year is “locked in” by state policy on Oct. 25). As quoted in the editorial, I am confident that we will be at 11,000 this time next year. There are some other contextual elements too, which put us on this path:

• Our state agency – the Council on Postsecondary Education (CPE) – had declared its earlier “Double the Numbers” (DTN) campaign for Kentucky’s public higher education institutions. For MSU to reach our state target at that time – for the number of bachelor’s degree graduates “assigned” to us – 12,000 was a concomitant enrollment goal.

• In conjunction with this statewide DTN enrollment drive, we conducted a couple of basic analyses to estimate capacity for student growth – growth that could be absorbed without significant up-front outlays for more professors, more classroom space, more housing, etc. Those reviews suggested that some number between 11,750 and 11,880 was an “optimal” size for us, without adding exponentially to existing programs and services. My guess is that enrollment range for our maximum efficiency would still be about the same.

• The MSU Board of Regents commissioned a Tuition Task Force in 2008-09 and, in their report to the Board at that time, strongly supported the practice of continuing to keep the University’s tuition among the lowest of the publics in Kentucky. And we remain a bargain … designated a “Top 100 Best College Buys” this year by Forbes. The 2009 Regents endorsed that low-pricing policy; our new Board in 2011 has not changed that direction.

Percentage increases in tuition are now being capped by the CPE. Finally, state appropriations will continue to be flat or declining. The point here is simple: Revenue growth for MSU is not going to come from higher tuition pricing, or more state support, or unrestricted gifts, or by falling off the trees. It will come from the tuition budget “overage” that more students bring – whether 500, or 1,000 or 2,000 of them. Steady, sustained growth toward capacity is how we’re going to keep paying for everything we are doing now.

Growing enrollment at MSU is not about some quixotic quest, it’s a means to an end. This is how we’ll continue excellence through quality, outreach with partnerships and innovation for impact.

Growth pays the way. That 1,100 students (between where we are now versus where we would have been) even subtracting out the average 40 percent waiver or discount per student has provided MSU about $5 million that it wouldn’t have had otherwise. Contrary to the editorial, this money didn’t come from “ghosts in (our) heads.” Many people have worked tremendously hard to get to this level and we’re a lot better off than we would have been without their efforts. I get MSU being “aware of its limits.” But aspirational goals, even if we don’t hit an exact target at an exact time, are an antidote for the real institutional “nightmare” that is risk-averse, stagnating, lacking vision and leading to an organization that eventually folds in on itself. Just look at the challenges SIU-Carbondale has faced in large part due to its downward slide in numbers recently.

It’s Homecoming Week. I’ve never spoken to one alum disappointed that more students are discovering this great place and pursuing an education here. Institutions are either in growth or decline. I do not apologize for advocating the former.