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SLU report details challenges in finances, enrollment

An archway entrance to Saint Louis University
chuteme | Flickr | Creative Commons

As it approaches its 200th anniversary, Saint Louis University is mobilizing to combat shrinking enrollment, a reduction in federal grants and contracts and a rising amount of scholarship aid paid to its students.

A new report looking at issues raised by the university’s strategic plan cautions that in a changing higher education landscape, SLU must change as well.

“Needless to say,” the report concluded, “times are tense for colleges and universities. The problems are compounded in the Midwest, where the population is declining. We, like universities across the country, are being called upon to make education more accessible, more affordable and more responsive to employers. The pressure is real….

“Without implementing significant changes, an annual loss in the range of $10 to $20 million is projected through our bicentennial year (2018) and beyond. Cumulative financial losses over time constrain our ability to pursue strategic plans, address academic needs, invest in our people, and serve the St. Louis region. The financial situation adds to work-related stress and threatens retention of our talented faculty and staff.”

In a video released to the SLU community, President Fred Pestello said that working groups led by university personnel would now move to work on issues identified in the report, in five major areas:

  • Excellence in education and research
  • Quality medical care
  • Helping bring change locally, nationally and worldwide
  • Innovation and entrepreneurship
  • A culture rooted in the university’s mission and Jesuit values

“This is a critical moment in our history,” Pestello said. “We must act boldly.”
Following the strategic plan, he added, “will create a more distinctive SLU today, and for the next 200 years.”

And the analysis of challenges to the university echoes his call for how the work should proceed.

“Before we face a crisis,” it said, “we must change. We must act intentionally, guided by data and community input, to become the innovative, nimble organization called for by the strategic plan and required in the changing economy of higher education. 

By the numbers

The report showed starkly the trends that have affected SLU in recent years, mirroring similar developments nationwide.

Enrollment, as measured by full-time-equivalent students, has dropped to its lowest level since 2010, at 11,500. At the same time, scholarships and grants as a percentage of tuition and fees is up sharply, to 34 percent last year from 27 percent in 2010, and federal government research grants and contracts are down to $29 million in 2015 from $40 million three years earlier.

Financially, income is down while expenses are up; and compared with its peer institutions, such as Loyola of Chicago, Marquette and Tulane, SLU does not fare well.

Overall private giving has dropped since 2012. A university spokesman said the analysis did not try to determine whether the decline was tied to controversy around that time over the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, the former president who resigned in the wake of a dispute over his leadership.

In terms of possible enrollment the future holds little promise for improvement. The number of high school graduates in the Midwest is projected to drop by 13 percent by 2028, with similar declines in Missouri and Illinois.

Following a process outlined in its strategic plan, known as Magis Operational Excellence (MOE), the analysis found areas of concern and potential improvement, including:

  • Athletic ticket prices have remained flat for many years
  • Student fees are below those of peer institutions
  • Private giving has dropped
  • Occupancy levels at residence halls have declined, and rates for on-campus apartments are below those of residence halls because fewer students opt for meal plans
  • In a quarter of academic departments, expenses exceed revenue
  • About $8 million a year is spent on adjunct faculty, many of whom teach courses with low enrollment

In terms of simplifying the organization, the report said these key questions need to be asked:
Who does the work? How is the work performed? Is the outcome valuable? Is it aligned to mission?

'This is a critical moment in our history. We must act boldly.' -- SLU President Fred Pestello

Some problems were highlighted as relatively easy to solve, such as simplifying the school’s travel procedures and sharing details of the budget process. Others, such as streamlining decision making, raising the contributions from corporate partnerships and increasing the number of accepted students who actually enroll, were judged to be more difficult.

One section of the report deals with what is called “academic contribution,” which is defined as not only the financial factors involved with a course or program but how it fits into the school’s mission and reputation.

Across departments, the report found, 25 percent of departments have a negative contribution, measured at $8 million. The university offers more majors and graduate programs than selected peers, as well as schools like Boston College and Georgetown that SLU would like to be compared to, and it has a large number of degree programs with low enrollment.

The study found that about 40 percent of undergraduate sections and about 70 percent of sections in graduate programs have 10 or fewer enrolled students. About 20 percent of full-time faculty members who have no administrative duties teach fewer than 100 credit hours each year.

A series of meetings to discuss the report’s findings began on Wednesday and continues through September at a variety of campus locations. Pestello urged everyone to get involved in the process of reaching the goals set by the report, which echoed the need for widespread participation.

“As we transform to a more nimble, innovative organization,” the report said, “our strengths as a community can unify us. There is a deep commitment, shared widely among faculty and staff, to SLU’s mission for academic excellence and social justice.

“The changing landscape of higher education demands that we are excellent, efficient and effective in all that we do. We have the opportunity to grow stronger by learning how to change ineffective processes/policies quickly and collaboratively.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.