Queen sacrifice at St. Cloud State University

How can colleges and universities respond to today’s many challenges?

One strategy is to cut: to delete various academic programs, support staff, and faculty. When such axing includes tenure-track faculty I call it a queen sacrifice, borrowing the chess metaphor to recognize the radical nature of the decision.  I’ve been documenting these moves, sadly, for years.

St._Cloud_State_University_sealToday’s example comes from St. Cloud State University, which announced it would cut a series of academic programs and lay off a group of academic workers.

I’ll outline what I can determine about the story, then reflect on its broader meaning.

According to the local Star Tribune, six programs facing the axe include undergraduate and graduate ones:

The majors to be phased out are philosophy, theater, nuclear medicine technology, real estate and insurance at the undergraduate level, as well as marriage and family therapy at the graduate level.

The human cost involves professors and administrators: “The university will also lay off 23 faculty and 14 staff, which will save more than $4.1 million in the coming year, as well as offer early separation incentives for employees…” I cannot determine the tenure or other status of these people.

Proportionally, the layoffs seem relatively small.  The campus Wikipedia page estimates 783 faculty, so the cuts count for around 3% of the whole.  The same source offers 773 staff, yielding about 2% cut.  That’s not counting however many take “early separation.”

The rationale behind this queen sacrifice will not surprise my readers.  St. Cloud enrollment has declined recently.  Not just declined, but plummeted:

The student headcount at St. Cloud State has dropped from more than 18,000 in 2010 to about 10,000 last fall. But not only are the numbers dropping, the students are changing: Nearly 50% of students are part-time, about 25% are under 18 and enrolled in postsecondary classes, and about 10% are 35 and older. [emphases added]

Looking at the St. Cloud website, their official enrollment statistics for the past five years present a stark picture:

St Cloud University enrollment 2017-2022

One important dimension of this story is not just the cuts, but shifting resources away from the truncated programs and people.  Note this explicit description:

the suspension of those majors will allow the university to reallocate resources into programs with higher demand and dig out of the deficit, according to St. Cloud State President Robbyn Wacker, who announced the budget cuts Wednesday.

“programs with higher demand” means the leadership found theater etc. to not enroll enough majors, while they anticipate finding more students majoring in other programs.   Which programs promise enrollment gold? “[H]olistic health and wellness, education, leadership, and engineering and applied science.”

So what does the St. Cloud story mean for higher education as a whole?

There’s always a risk in generalizing from one story out of 4,000 or so, especially given the rich diversity of American higher ed. But we can find some forces at play in this case, which also occur elsewhere.

Take the enrollment decline.  My readers know I’ve been tracking this since America passed peak higher ed in 2012.  Minnesota, where St. Cloud lives, has been really losing students.  Another local source estimates the state’s declining enrollment as 100,000 since 2010.  One source of that decline is, as my readers also know, dropping birthrates as well as internal migration: “‘There is a decline in enrollment that is being driven by the underlying demographics,’ said Susan Brower, Minnesota State Demographer.”

Beyond demographics, there seems to be a demand decline because of changes in the labor market:

While the enrollment declines have impacted The University of Minnesota System and private non-profit colleges as well, the drop-off has been greatest across Minnesota state four-year universities like Saint Cloud State.

“That suggests to me that there is something else going on too,” Brower said. “Either with the way that they’re recruiting or the way that they’re aligned with the other needs of potential students.”

This last points to what I’ve previously referred to as the shattered consensus, the end of most people thinking everyone needed more higher education.  Perhaps Minnesota in general is experiencing early signs of that transition, and St. Cloud is at their leading edge.

Parody Saint Cloud State University seal, reading "Dont Think Too Much," from the Daily Nous website

Parody seal from philosophy website Daily Nous.

On a different point I was surprised by the unusual mix of majors being cut.  Typically the arts and humanities lead queen sacrifices, so seeing theater and philosophy was unsurprising.

Yet marriage and family therapy, nuclear medicine technology, real estate and insurance? I would have thought all parts of therapy would be going well, given increasing demand for that profession.  The university’s decision to do more with “holistic health and wellness” should incorporate all of therapy.  President Wacker’s recent column in favor of university degrees cites similar fields as good examples of the higher ed experience.

Ditto nuclear medicine, especially with the state’s aging population.  Real estate, though – perhaps Minnesota properties are declining in value as the population shrink.  Perhaps all of those departments were just performing badly, or students and administrators saw them as such, in which case the situation might be particular rather than offering an instance of a broader trend.

Overall, the St. Cloud story offers us yet another queen sacrifice example.  As I’ve said earlier, we should look for more examples as other universities and colleges experience declining enrollment and other financial pressures.

(thanks to Stephen Landry)

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4 Responses to Queen sacrifice at St. Cloud State University

  1. Gary Stocker says:

    Here are some other data points for Saint Cloud State. College Viability App – IPEDS data 2014-2021

    1. As cited in Bryan’s story, both FTE and total enrollment are down more than 30%. Total entering undergrads as down 34% ( almost 1,800 students)

    2. The 2021 ‘percent admitted’ was up to 94% – clearly an effort to accept anyone who applies to grab some tuition revenue.

    3. 4 and 6-year graduation rates were averaging about 20% and 45%, respectively (undergrads)

    4. Operating revenues were down over $28M

    5. Non operating revenues were only up $11M.

    6. Institutional support per student increased 54%.

    7. Retention was only at 62% in 2021 – down 11 points.

    College Viability analysis: It is highly unlikely a private college will close. But this data demonstrates that decreasing enrollment puts pressure on the revenue side of the business. Core expenses were down over $8M in the 8 reported years, but that doesn’t appear sufficient to stem the issues on the revenue side. With state appropriations only up $2.5M over this period, the decreased operating revenue has become an ‘academic elephant in the room’.

  2. Pingback: Looking Back and Looking Forward: The Three E’s for Facing the Future | Rob Reynolds

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    How about the bigger fish? The state flagship universities facing enrollment and financial issues?

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