NMU anticipates enrollment dips, looks for savings

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Northern Michigan University is anticipating a 10 percent drop in enrollment in fall 2020 and is preparing for at least a $8.7 million budget shortfall.

NMU President Fritz Erickson sent out an email to staff and faculty early this week asking Northern’s division leaders to develop contingency plans to determine where cuts can be made and money saved. Budget cuts will be announced by May 1.

“I’m not a big fan of across-the-board cuts where everyone takes a 5% cut out of departmental budgets”  Erickson said. “We need to be targeted and strategic”

The American Council on Education and other higher education associations are advising institutions to plan for a possible 15% drop in overall student enrollment for the upcoming academic year. 

The projected $8.7 million loss at NMU reflects only revenues lost due to enrollment decline. It does not take into account an expected drop in overall state funding to higher education. More information on state revenue should be released in a few days, he said.

Recruitment of students is also being impacted by uncertainty over summer orientation activities. Normally high school students and parents could visit campus and get a feel for the Marquette area. But, the virus is preventing those visits and NMU has adapted to doing virtual campus visits. 

As for how the campus will look and operate in the fall, it is too soon to know, said Erickson.

“Our intent is to be back up and fully operational as a residential campus face to face classes by the fall. But I also know that we live in very uncertain times,” Erickson said. “But the desire of everyone is to get back to face to face classes. The full collegiate experience of going to college is a whole lot more than showing up to class.” 

Q&A with President Erickson

NW: What do you anticipate will happen with state funding to higher education?

Erickson: It’s hard to predict right now when so much is up in the air. We do know that the state is indicating we’ll have some significant budget issues, but will know within the next couple of days when state revenues are released. State revenues are down considerably—all you have to do is look at the number of people that are laid off, to sales tax revenues with bars and restaurants closing. 

NW: Why do you think enrollment will decrease? What choices are students making?

Erickson: We’re watching national trends in terms of graduation rates. Some of the initial surveys forecast there will be students opting out of going to college at this point. We don’t know what the enrollment could possibly be but we have to prepare for one if there is one. 

NW: Has this hurt recruitment efforts? What will happen with orientation?

Erickson: We haven’t made the decision on orientation yet, of course we’re hoping it can still happen. Orientation is a very important part of what we do, and we do it so very well. It’s important to hold not only for students but for parents to help prepare them. The biggest challenge we have is to get people up to visit Marquette and NMU. When students do come, we have an amazing rate of students that want to attend. Given travel restrictions, we deferred Wildcat Weekend, which could have an impact [on enrollment.] I give great credit to the admissions office and staff that’s working there doing virtual tours, engaging with folks and being very proactive. 

NW: How do you think Covid-19 and the resulting decline in economic activity will impact the campus?

Erickson: There will be a significant impact on campus, the economic impact students are going through impacts our campus community as well. We have to think about students who come from all walks of life. We’re fortunate to keep people employed, and made a commitment to do the best we can. A vast majority of our folks are working at home and doing a great job. It’s almost harder to work from home than work from an office. I wake up in the morning, get a call and go hard all day.  

NW: What do you think classes are going to look like next fall? When will a decision be made regarding how classes will be held?

Erickson: You tell me! Our intent is to be back up and fully operational as a residential campus, holding face to face classes by the fall. But I also know that we live in very uncertain times. It’s prudent for us to think about what happens if travel restrictions are not lifted or guidelines still suggest you can travel but have to keep group sizes to a limited amount. How do you structure classes in such a way to accommodate that? There’s so many unknowns but the desire of everyone is to get back to face to face classes. The full collegiate experience of going to college is a whole lot more than showing up to class. 

NW: How do you make these decisions and how much is it influenced by what other universities are doing? 

Erickson: Each university is different. We have to make the decision that’s in the best interest of our students first. We talk all the time with other universities and maybe some collaborative efforts can be put into place. 

NW: Are we all going to be walking around with masks?

Erickson: We made the commitment early on to follow the governor’s directions and the recommendations of the CDC, our own medical staff including the Marquette County Health Department. All of those things factor in. 

NW: How may life be different in the dorms?

Erickson: The vast majority of our students have been following social distancing guidelines and so forth. Depending on what students want to do, at the end of the day safety of everyone on campus is absolutely paramount. 

NW: What areas do you think budget cuts could occur? 

Erickson: We’re putting together options. Let’s say we have to make some significant budget cuts, what options do we have available and what are the consequences? I’m not a big fan of across the board cuts where everyone takes a 5% cut out of departmental budgets. We need to be targeted and strategic. The first step is to put together as many options as possible knowing full well we haven’t made any decisions on which areas to make reductions. For example, if we were to make cuts to athletic programs what would the consequences be? 

NW: What are the top five areas you’re considering cutting?

Erickson: The goal is to not judge initially but to say this is a possibility and without any preconceived notions. Once we get that whole list then we’ll be looking at models for prioritizing and so forth. Some reductions could impact everyone, some could be highly targeted. My hope is to have as many of these ideas in place by May 1 and then put together a contingency plan based on that. 

NW: How has all of this affected you personally? And in your role as president of NMU?

Erickson: It’s like most things. I’ve been so impressed at how people have responded to this—whether it’s the number of students, faculty and staff looking to contribute to help the situation, or whether it’s the work of Art and Design to create masks, costume shops transforming from making theatre costumes to making masks. Personally I find that really uplifting. For all of us the unknown is difficult, but we’re all deeply concerned in everyone’s safety and making sure we can do everything we can. I’m probably no different than everyone else as we’ve dealt with this issue.