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Enrollment is ‘Job One’

So far, AU has been spared the worst fallout from the financial crisis. But such good fortune is rare among universities, Provost Scott Bass cautioned the Faculty Senate at its meeting last week.

“We may be one of the only institutions that are so far untouched,” he said, and for that to remain the case, it’s crucial to see enrollment as “job one.”

Three factors make universities particularly vulnerable to the crisis, he said. The first two, a dependence on state resources or an endowment for operating costs, aren’t part of the picture at AU.

But AU is 95 percent reliant on tuition. While the cuts, construction delays, and hiring freezes that are chilling the climate at universities across the country have not materialized at AU, much depends on meeting enrollment targets.

At this point, the forecast is promising. Early decision numbers are strong, registration for spring term looks good, and a record number of students have signed up for study abroad. But complacency would be unwise, Bass said.

“If we don’t meet our enrollment, we won’t have the money, and we’ll be in exactly the same situation as everyone else,” he said. “One way we can get to higher ground before that tsunami hits is to present ourselves in the most favorable light.”

Only a few months ago, the discussion about enrollment centered on concerns that the university’s rising cachet might generate a paradoxical problem: more applicants accepting their admission offers than expected, resulting in an overcrowded freshman class.

The financial meltdown, though, means that families may rethink college expenses.

Bass said that doing “little things” to help current and prospective students feel welcome and excited about the prospect of studying here is the best way to ensure the university’s financial security in trying times.

Regardless of global financial concerns, the university is committed to the ambitious strategic plan approved on Nov. 21 by the Board of Trustees, Bass said. “I am absolutely committed to that plan, even if there are no new resources. It may be slower, but we will do it,” he said.

Sharon Alston, acting executive director of enrollment, noted that applications are running 3 percent ahead of December 2007. The university is working to increase both its yield and its socioeconomic diversity, she said, in part by strategic use of funding. “One thing we’ll be looking at is the population of students for whom we can meet 100 percent of demonstrated need,” she said.

The senate also discussed a proposed new copyright policy designed in part to address the changing scholarly environment in the digital era. However, there was concern that faculty had not had enough opportunity to examine it and comment, particularly at the School of Communication. It will be revisited next year.