Many of Maryland's smallest colleges and universities have seen steadily declining enrollment over the past five years, in some cases by double-digit percentages, straining budgets and prompting layoffs.
The declines occurred even as overall enrollment in four-year institutions in the state swelled, driven largely by big gains in online students at University of Maryland University College. Nationwide, enrollment grew nearly 1.2 percent between 2010 and 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Small schools around Baltimore were particularly hard-hit. Coppin State University's enrollment fell by 18 percent from about 3,800 students in the fall of 2010 to about 3,100 in the fall of 2015. The University of Baltimore, Notre Dame of Maryland University and St. John's College in Annapolis also saw enrollment declines and laid off staff in the last year as a result.
Smaller colleges can be highly dependent on tuition revenue and even minor drops in enrollment can have a big impact, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. Every college has an ideal number of students it needs to enroll to cover its costs, he said. Too few students can leave a hole in the budget; too many students requires hiring more faculty.
"The cost of a library doesn't really change, so you want to hit that number as close as you can," Nassirian said. "Larger institutions tend to have a lot more efficiency when it comes to fixed costs. Small ones are at a decided disadvantage."
College administrators say they're grappling with a sea change in higher education. Students and their families have become more cost-conscious since the 2007-2009 recession, when enrollment boomed amid a weak job market. Today's students also demand more support services and academic programs.
"A big question from family members is outcomes," said Dale Bittinger, who oversees undergraduate admissions at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where enrollment grew by 7 percent over the past five years. "They ask, 'When my son or daughter graduates, will they get a job, and what's the value for the dollar?'"
Statewide, Coppin State saw the largest percentage drop in enrollment of any four-year college between 2010 and 2015, according to data from the Maryland Higher Education Commission. McDaniel College dropped 17 percent to a little under 3,000 students, while Notre Dame, St. Mary's College of Maryland and St. John's College also saw double-digit percentage drops in enrollment over the same five-year period.
Data for this fall's enrollment is not yet available.
Larger schools such as UMBC and the Johns Hopkins University fared well in the same period, with enrollment rising 7 percent and 8 percent, respectively. Enrollment at the state's flagship school, University of Maryland, College Park, grew 1 percent.
A couple of smaller universities, Maryland Institute College of Art and Stevenson University, bucked the trend and increased enrollment by 5 percent and 6 percent, respectively.
Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg also saw its enrollment grow by 7 percent, but administrators said earlier this year that a scandal involving a former president's controversial comments resulted in significantly fewer freshmen committing to the school for this fall.
Although it's not clear what impact it might have on college enrollments, the number of students graduating from high schools in Maryland declined by about 1 percent from 2010 to 2014, according to state data.
College administrators cited various reasons for the enrollment declines. Officials at McDaniel and at Goucher College, which saw enrollment decline 7 percent over five years, said their undergraduate enrollment has been steady but that they have seen declines in graduate students, particularly teachers seeking master's degrees, and are working to add high-demand graduate programs to attract new students.
"The stability of the undergraduate program has been very helpful," said Marty Sweidel, Goucher's senior vice president for strategic initiatives. "If that had been tanking, we would not be in the position we are today, investing in new dining and residence halls."
Notre Dame's enrollment dropped by 12 percent from 2010 to 2015 to about 2,600 students, prompting it to lay off 12 people and cut 14 vacant positions in early August. University officials blamed some of the enrollment decline on the rioting in Baltimore last year that followed the death of Freddie Gray from an injury sustained in police custody.
In a survey obtained by The Baltimore Sun, however, only one student who chose not to attend Notre Dame last year cited the unrest as a reason, while another student cited "security." The primary reasons students gave were cost of attendance, distance from home and the school not being the right fit. Gregory P. FitzGerald, the university's chief of staff, said prospective students expressed their concern about the unrest by other means, such as in phone calls.
At Coppin State, Maria Thompson, the college's new president, has made increasing enrollment her top priority and hired a consultant to help.
"There are a number of internal and external factors that impact a university's enrollment, and we are addressing all factors within our control," Coppin spokeswoman Tiffany Jones said in a statement.
James Brady, chair of the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, which oversees Coppin State and the University of Baltimore, said officials were working to increase enrollment and that he was confident they could turn the tide.
"I'm also a realist to know that this a terrific challenge, and President Thompson recognizes that as well," he said. "We know it's not a walk in the park, to say the least."
The University of Baltimore, which saw a 4 percent enrollment decline over five years, laid off 14 employees and eliminated 12 vacant positions in May to help save $3.9 million. University officials said the school was suffering from a nationwide downturn in the number of law school students. First-year enrollment in law schools between 2010 and 2015 was off 29.4 percent, according to the American Bar Association.
Dave Bobart, UB's interim vice president for enrollment management, said he expects the trend to end soon and that the college has added new law and criminal justice programs to compensate. He also said the school, which once only enrolled upperclassmen and still relies heavily on transfer students from community colleges, has been affected by enrollment declines at community colleges.
Maryland community colleges lost 3,200 students, or 3.1 percent of the total, in 2015, and 4,800 students — 4.5 percent — in 2014.
Sydney Comitz, chair of the student advisory council to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents, said students have gotten savvier about their options and want to make sure they're getting a quality education that is worth the cost of tuition.
"I believe the economic recession had people thinking about college affordability in a more serious way than ever before," said Comitz, a third-year law student at University of Baltimore.
At St. John's Annapolis campus, enrollment fell 15 percent over the five years to 457 students. Facing an $11.5 million structural deficit in the last fiscal year, St. John's College laid off seven employees. In June, St. John's gave the president of its Santa Fe, N.M., campus oversight of the Annapolis campus, in part to make it easier to eliminate duplicative jobs between the two locations.
Benjamin S. Baum, St. John's director of admissions, said he is tasked with keeping freshman enrollment steady at around 150 students per year — a number that had previously fluctuated. He said the college expects to hit or exceed that number this fall.
"That 150 number isn't just a magic number," Baum said. "It's the number that's optimal for housing, the number of faculty we have, the expenses of running the college."
Stevenson University, a small private college with a higher price tag than public schools, would presumably be affected by the decisions of budget-conscious students, but its 6 percent enrollment increase between 2010 and 2015 is part of a trend that has doubled the school's enrollment to nearly 4,200 since 2000.
The university has pitched itself as career-oriented, and admissions officials often talk with prospective students and their families about the jobs they can expect to get after graduation. Kelly Farmer, assistant vice president of admissions, said the college also expanded its recruitment from just the East Coast to nationwide.
"We know that college is an investment," Farmer said. "We want to make sure that families know that's an investment that will pay off."