SRU President William Behre delivered his annual state of the university address to SRU stakeholders via email Friday, Sept. 11 and addressed student and faculty questions afterward on Zoom Tuesday.
His address discussed enrollment, availability, outcomes, university finances and “looking forward” in an eight page document format. Behre held a Zoom conference four days after his address was sent out in order to answer questions and provide clarification for points made in the document.
Behre began his address by explaining how despite the COVID-19 pandemic and recent circumstances, we should not lose sight of “the wonder of a new year.”
“This year marks our institution’s 131st fall semester,” Behre said in his address. “Despite the pandemic, our tradition of serving students remains strong. Thank you to all who have worked tirelessly this year as we continue to move forward.”
The total number of students enrolled at SRU increased by 70 for a total of 8,876. Undergraduate numbers are down by 53 while graduate enrollment has increased by 123.
The pandemic is partially to blame for the 119 student drop (7.5%) in the first-year group. The decline in numbers was most noticeable after the announcement of the shift to distance modalities, according to Behre.
The total number of first-year students from traditionally underrepresented ethnic or racial groups increased from 157 to 192 (22.3%).
As for retention, the continued enrollment of first- and second-year students is 82.8% with a less than 1% decrease from previous years. The second- to third-year retention rate is 74.6% with a 2% increase, while the third- to fourth-year retention rate is 67% with a 1.8% decrease.
Retention rates of those who identify as members of underrepresented ethnic or racial groups has increased, with second-year class standing at 82.8% compared to last year’s 73.1% and third-year standing at 65.7% compared to last year’s 62.6%. Fourth-year student retention rates dropped to 56.7%, a less than 1% decrease from last year’s 57.5%.
Behre added how other universities have experienced a similar decrease in enrollment rates because of the pandemic. He said SRU’s reduction can arguably be interpreted as a positive thing.
Behre reiterated the importance of bettering the graduation rate.
“In five years, we must have a six-year graduation rate that approaches 75%,” Behre said. “In a decade, we must reach 85%.”
One of Behre’s goals for the future is to attract a greater number of students, including those who would not have originally considered SRU over another competitor university. He said he wants to address the demographic decline of high school graduates by increasing SRU’s graduation rate.
“If we are successful at meeting these challenges, at a time when the number of high school students in our region is shrinking, we will be retaining more of our current students while drawing new students who would have otherwise overlooked SRU,” said the president in his address.
The Middle States Commission of Higher Education (MSCHE) will visit SRU in March to discuss and finalize future plans. According to Behre, a final plan must address:
- Enhancing SRU’s attractiveness to high-achieving students;
- Improving SRU’s outcomes;
- Improving SRU’s accessibility for students with few financial resources;
- Achieving and maintaining the right program array; and
- Fostering diversity and inclusion within the community.
Behre added that the SRU-Edinboro affiliation is no longer a part of the PASSHE system redesign, as the system has pivoted away from this model.
As for what the spring semester will look like, Behre explained that he and the provost have begun to discuss which classes will be multimodal and which will be fully online.
“If there is a significant change in the landscape, we may decide to pivot to more in-person experiences,” Behre said. “However, I must emphasize that we have no current indication that this will be the case.”
Behre said SRU has altered the 2020-2021 academic calendar to remove spring break. The spring semester will begin Jan. 19 and proceed until April uninterrupted, ending a week earlier on April 26, followed by finals week.
Additionally, detailed on pages six and seven of his address, Behre explained how fostering diversity and inclusion remains a priority. He said he continues to work with SRU to address diversity and inclusion concerns, listing things he and the university have done.
In terms of affordability, Behre said SRU remains one of the most affordable schools in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
One way Behre and the university measure affordability is through unmet need, which is the average amount of financial need that a student faces after financial aid is applied, according to Behre.
For all of the PASSHE schools, this unmet need amount for the 2018-2019 academic year came to $12,378. At SRU alone, the figure was $9,971. Behre said they anticipate an even more decreased amount this year at about $9,151.
Behre added another way to measure affordability is to compare the cost of attendance at schools where SRU applicants are likely to apply. A table on page two of the document compared SRU’S average cost of attendance to other universities.
SRU’s six-year graduation rate is 69%. Behre said having 69% of students graduate means he and SRU have failed to graduate the other 31%.
“Each time a student leaves us without attaining a degree, we must ask ourselves why this happened,” Behre said. “The finest public institutions in the U.S. graduate in excess of 85% of their students. We should strive to achieve that goal.”
Behre said he and the university also took a look at the outcomes of students once they leave campus. SRU was recognized as a top public institution in Pennsylvania for post-graduation employment outcomes by Zippia.com.
SRU has also been working with the career development office to include life design components, according to Behre.
“I believe that this additional service to students will improve our retention and graduation rates,” Behre said. “[I]t will help them to clarify their goals and make explicit the link between the knowledge and skills that they are gaining at college and the pathway to their desired career outcome.”
Behre began this section of his address by explaining that there are three different sections of university expenses. This includes educational and general, capital and auxiliary.
Educational and general costs are the normal operating costs of the university, including most salaries and benefits, travel, financial aid and supplies and equipment, according to Behre. The educational and general costs budget is more than 80% salary and benefits and is mainly paid through tuition, fees and donations.
Behre explained capital costs as expenditures going toward enhancing and maintaining the physical condition of campus. These funds are raised through debt, donations and transfers from the educational and general reserves.
“The physical condition of our campus is important to meeting the needs of current and future students,” Behre said. “In the future, we must have the capacity to allocate more funds to address our deferred maintenance issues and necessary improvements.”
Auxiliary costs are defined as expenses that go toward supporting entities like campus recreation, the Smith Student Center and student housing, according to Behre’s address. These entities are also funded by student fees and rental agreements.
Some of the entities experienced financial losses due to the refunding certain fees to students.
Most of the university’s losses in the 2019-2020 fiscal year were through auxiliary losses. Many of these losses were recovered by the funding provided through the CARES Act.
Behre added that the university is currently “financially solvent,” but said there is a growing concern.
“Before the pandemic struck, SRU’s council of trustees endorsed a proposal to the state system’s board of governors, which was a request for approval of a 3.5% tuition increase,” Behre said. “That proposed increase would have helped offset our contractual average annualized increases in salary costs of 2.6% in [fiscal year 2021], 3.4% in [fiscal year 2022] and 3.9% in [fiscal year 2023].”
Behre detailed how he and the university withdrew their tuition increase request because of the pandemic, resulting in a second consecutive year that did not have a tuition increase. He said he is expecting an estimated year-end deficit of about $1 million for education and general expenses.