Economy affects enrollment at FPU

More working adults are completing their bachelor's degrees at FPU, according to fall 2008 enrollment figures. Graduate attendance also remains strong, but a soft economy has had its effect on the number of traditional undergraduate students.

A total of 2,377 students began classes this fall, the same number as fall 2007. The shift came in the kind of students. The 16-day census saw 733 in bachelor's degree completion programs, up from 652 at the same time in 2007. Graduate students were up three to 784, while 860 traditional undergraduates begin classes, compared to 944 at the same time in 2007.

Based on past performance and expected conditions, university administrators projected 90 more traditional undergraduates and 40 more degree completion students would enroll. The university bases its budget on those estimates.

About 80 students, evenly split between traditional undergraduate and degree completion, were expected to apply in the month before school started. "We traditionally get that bump, but it didn't happen this year," President D. Merrill Ewert said.

A number of both traditional and degree completion students were signed up for classes and had financial aid contracts, but changed their mind at the last minute due to gas prices and job insecurity, either theirs or their parents'. "Some told us they planned to come next semester or next year, others went to community colleges and will eventually transfer," Ewert said.

The current economic downturn has disproportionately touched California’s Central Valley, which most FPU students call home. California Congressional District 20, which includes the FPU campus, is the poorest U.S. Congressional district in the nation by life expectancy, high school/college graduation rates and median household income.

"We have double-digit unemployment, a melt-down in home equity and some of the highest gas prices in the country," Ewert said.

"Many of our students are the first in their families to go to college, and come from families with few financial resources," Ewert said. "Those are the very families first affected by the weak economy."

The "yield," the percent of applicants who enroll, went up this fall. "This is a testament to our undergraduate admission staff, who worked extremely hard and effectively," Ewert said.

Also on the positive side, a higher number of last year's freshman returned. Retention was 77 percent, whereas the goal had been 75 percent. In addition, U.S. News & World Report again listed FPU on its top tier of master's degree universities in the West.

FPU is not alone this fall. "As we've talked with colleagues in our sister institutions, we're hearing that many of the smaller independent colleges and universities are sharing our experience," Ewert said. "I've attended meetings over the past year in which authorities called these the most difficult days in more than a century for the private, not-for-profit institutions."

Admissions staff members are looking at new ways to reach potential students and faculty, staff and administration are working together to rework the budget. A new degree completion program to allow registered nurses to earn their bachelor's degree (RN to BSN) begins in January.

FPU has also contracted with Noel Levitz, a premier enrollment organization, to make FPU affordable to as many academically qualified students as possible.

"The economy goes up and down. We need to make sure we're doing everything we can to get the word out about the lifelong benefits of FPU's academically challenging and spiritually focused education," Ewert said.