WU student enrollment down, effects felt across campus

Enrollment declines and the resulting losses in tuition revenue at Winthrop have impacted the campus community in a number of ways, including a reduction in the number of faculty, a decrease in the number of classes available and a decline in the quality of services offered to students (photo: Palmetto Report staff).

(Rock Hill, S.C.) – Student enrollment at Winthrop University is down by almost 500 students since the 2017-2018 school year, which has led to budget cuts, layoffs and smaller course sizes across campus, impacting faculty, staff and students in many ways.

Winthrop — like many schools — is heavily dependent on enrollment, as tuition makes up the majority of the university’s revenue and it’s estimated to be 67.5% of fiscal year 2022’s overall budget, according to Associate Vice President for Finance and Business Jeremy Whitaker. Tuition made up 70% of the overall budget in fiscal year 2018.

Winthrop’s operating revenue — once $122.5M in fiscal year 2018 — dropped by 7.8% to an estimated operating revenue of $113M in fiscal year 2022.

To offset the difference in revenue, the university has asked asked faculty and staff to leave, allowed contracts to expire and permanently retired positions after those holding the positions leave or retire.

“The goal of the university is to match revenue and expenses every year. In fiscal year 2020, compensation was 78.5% of the divisional allocations, therefore, as revenues have gone down, the university has had to reduce expenses by making tough decisions,” Whitaker said.

Staff members have been let go at a higher rate than faculty, but faculty at the lower end of the hierarchy, like adjunct professors, also have to worry about their positions, according to Brandon Ranallo-Benavidez, assistant professor of political science.

According to Ranallo-Benavidez, the large number of staff members let go will have effects throughout the university.

“We need to have instructors, of course, but also, we’re a liberal arts college, and so we need to have the whole scope of wraparound services. So whenever we’re seeing people, like the staff members, be . . . let go or having their positions unfilled once they leave voluntarily, it causes problems that then reverberate throughout the whole system,” Ranallo-Benavidez said.

Quality of Services

Infrastructure has been identified by students and staff as a campus problem that needs to be addressed immediately.

James Grigg, associate vice president of facilities management, held a talk on Oct. 20 about ongoing projects and the issues facilities management knows about.

WU Students for Change, a campus advocacy group, held a protest on Dec. 3 demanding, among other things, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance and the removal of mold from residence halls.

On Tik Tok, the account “WU Anarchist Student Society” posted a video showing what appears to be mold in a shower, mushrooms growing out of a carpet and rotten wood on the outside of buildings, among other things.

Text on the video reads “Winthrop University is the most expensive public college in S.C. This is what we are paying for…” The post has over 292,000 views and 39,000 likes.

According to Whitaker, “Finance and facilities have been working diligently to address the deferred maintenance needs of the University. The University currently has roughly 17 projects with costs over $35 million that will be executed over the next two to three years. In addition, we received another $9 million of renewal replacement funds from the state in fiscal year 2022.”

He said those funds would be used to upgrade classrooms, update cameras, to improve Winthrop’s network and complete other technology projects.

Fewer Services

Counseling Services is another point of concern according to WU Students for Change.

“We demand that Winthrop University expand its mental health resources, including the onboarding of better, more inclusive, and more sensitive therapists and counselors in the Health and Counseling department, to ensure that students have access to the care they need. Students shouldn’t be waiting months for counseling appointments,” the group said, in a petition posted on Change.org.

According to Gretchen Baldwin, the clinical coordinator for Counseling Services, her and her staff are at capacity, despite appointments being down by almost 50% since fall 2019. 

“Everybody is absolutely at capacity. Like we’re plugging people into our case management time. And, you know, we just can’t really add more in a day,” Baldwin said. “In an ethical and responsible way, you know, there’s only so many people that you can treat in a day and still have the resources internally to continue to provide good treatment.”

Counseling Services uses a same day model to appointments, meaning a student can get an appointment on the same day they contact Counseling Services for help. 

“We have that model because in the past prior to that, somebody would have to wait two to three weeks before an intake session,” Baldwin said. “We transitioned to a same day model of intake because it’s really more of like a get your foot in the door kind of an assessment type appointment.

“Then we can – based on what the person is needing and their level of clinical urgency – we can either schedule them for another same day that week or help get them connected to the community or schedule them for the next available appointment.”

Baldwin said she is looking to hire a new counselor with a multicultural specialty to replace a staff member who left at the end of October. 

“The goal of that position is to provide focused outreach to the community especially targeted at BIPOC students and be able to reduce stigma and encourage, you know, representation among our staff members in order to kind of allow people to feel safe and comfortable coming into counseling services and to feel heard and seen in a comfortable way,” Baldwin said.

She believes this vacancy, as well as a lack of Office of Victim Assistance (OVA) counselors, has contributed to the high work load for her and her staff.

“I think some of this may be reflected by OVA counseling, in that we had three individuals practicing in OVA counseling in 2019 who looked like two full time staff members as far as hours went,” Baldwin said. “OVA experienced 100% turnover because staff members were overworked. And so we’ve really tried to be very, very cautious with staff self care in OVA to protect their well being. And now we only have the one and the part time person, but we will soon have two full time people there”

To be able to grow, Baldwin said her department would need a mix of resources.

“The university would need to be able to identify a full time staff members salaries, salary and benefits. And we would need space. We don’t have space to grow here in this building,” Baldwin said.

Fewer Classes Available

Budget concerns are not the only negative impact of declining enrollment.

Faculty have to worry about meeting enrollment quotas in the courses they teach. If a course has less than 12 students enrolled, it is possible the course will be canceled for the semester. 

“Courses that previously would never have an issue getting enough students to actually enroll in them for them to make. . . the minimum,” Ranallo-Benavidez said. “You could probably look through the spring of 22 course catalog right now and see dozens if not even close to 100 courses across the university, that should have at least 12 and don’t.”

In the political science department alone, over 30% of courses have less than the 12 required students enrolled at time of writing.

Ranallo-Benavidez said this is the first semester he won’t meet his four course requirement for his tenure track. 

“I’ve never had an issue up until now. Next semester, my second section of American government – because I’m supposed to be teaching two of them,” Ranallo-Benavidez said. “The first one has 20-something, it’s fine. The second section only has seven, and so I don’t think it’s going to end up making. So that’ll be the first time for me that one of my four courses… is not probably going to have high enough enrollment to make.”

Students could also be impacted by this change, as the classes they intended to take could be changed last minute due to low enrollment.

However, Ranallo-Benavidez said at least in the College of Arts and Sciences, exceptions will be given to graduating students.

“If a course is required for a student to graduate, and they are graduating that semester, you can either make a petition to run the course under enrolled. So if you have like a senior capstone, and it only has 10 in it instead of 12, you can submit a petition, it’ll probably pass to teach it,” Ranallo-Benavidez said. “And then if it’s only one or two people, like it’s a really low enrollment, then you can (make it an) independent study, so that student could do an independent study with you.”

Competition for Undeclared Students

Competition is heating up between departments, according to Ranallo-Benavidez, to draw students into certain majors while making sure to not discourage other majors.

“So every undeclared student is going to be a free for all, in our especially those general education courses at the lowest levels, things like American government for political science, or, you know, intro to sociology or psychology or some of these other similarly situated majors, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to try to pull those students into your own courses,” Ranallo-Benavidez said.

“I think… it’s going to be more like, ‘please, consider our courses, come take them with us. And if you’ve enjoyed this class, consider declaring a major or a second major or a minor,’ and those types of things, really pushing students into your courses.”

If a major consistently has it’s classes canceled due to low enrollment, it is possible that major will be changed into a program, only offering minors or only being a part of an individualized study, while some departments may also be fused with others, resulting in combined majors and classes.

Enrollment & Retention Declines

Enrollment has two factors to consider: (1) the number of new students arriving on campus and (2) the number of students that return.

The Office of Admissions is in charge of attracting, recruiting and accepting new students. From there, University College is in charge of student retention by helping students academically stay on track.

During the fall semester 2017, Winthrop had 5,014 undergraduate students enrolled. By the fall semester 2021, that number had dropped to 3,973 undergraduate students enrolled, a decline of 1,041 or almost 21%.

Freshman enrollment matches this trend, with 1,050 freshman enrolled in 2017, but that number dropped to 818 freshman enrolled in 2021; a dip of 22%.

Joseph Miller, Vice President for Enrollment Management and Marketing, said changing demographics and economic downturn were already impacting the number of students looking to go to college, and the COVID-19 pandemic have made these problems worse. 

“COVID-19 really accelerated what we saw coming. What many people would have anticipated, not for another five years, and some pretty steep enrollment declines across the country, and particularly within South Carolina,” Miller said. “90% of our students … at Winthrop University are from the state of South Carolina. So it’s really important that we monitor the metrics and this you know, sort of the landscape of what’s happening in the state but also understanding how some of our out of state primary markets are working as well.”

Competition for New Students

The number of high school graduates was projected to rise until the 2025-2026 school year, and then begin to lower again. However, the number of high school graduates do not always correlate with the number of graduates looking to go to college, especially during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I think COVID proved to us that that decline that some call it the demographic cliff, that demographic cliff actually got scooted five years forward now. And it’s not because of any change in the number of students who graduated high school, I think it has everything to do with the fact of the changes in family finances,” Miller said. “A lot of families, you know, parents were furloughed, they were unemployed or underemployed. So any sort of family reserves financially, aren’t being prioritized for higher education right now.”

Outside competition is also contributing to lower enrollment, according to Miller.

South Carolina is the only state in the Southeast that is projected to grow in the number of college-going students. In addition, the Charlotte metropolitan area is one of only four metropolitan areas in the country expected to grow greater than 7.5% in college-going students. 

“So the competition has become increasingly competitive and fierce for students in South Carolina,” Miller said. “It’s the ultimate zero sum game, right, if other colleges pull market share away from Winthrop University, that’s fewer students that the university has to recruit.”

The number of freshman enrolled did increase in 2019, which Miller attributes to new technology.

“The college at that point realized that it needed to make some investments in technology. That was the 2017-2018 year, which didn’t get fully implemented until 2019,” Miller said.

“As the new guy, having looked at the past couple years of admission, financial aid and enrollment trend history for Winthrop. I have no doubt that fall 2020 was on record to be the absolute very best year in freshmen enrollment for Winthrop University,” Miller said.

Student retention has similarly suffered. 468 students enrolled in spring 2021 did not return in fall 2021, with only 67, or 14%, indicating they would be transferring. This is up from last year, when 429 students enrolled in spring 2020 did not return in fall 2020. 

Vice Provost for Student Success and Dean of University College Jamie Cooper said he believes this drop is mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, despite prior drops.

“I would say, the last three years, we have been at about 69% retention rate. And so this year went down to 67.9%. So we went down two points,” Cooper said. “I think that was definitely an impact of COVID. But I think we fared better in terms of the declines that we saw than many other institutions did.”

Previous drops, Cooper said, can be explained by the lack of programs, like the Learning Excellence Academic Practice (LEAP) program. According to Winthrop’s website, the program “is designed to assist students in making a successful transition from high school to college” and “provides academic guidance and support to a select group of freshman students at Winthrop University.”

“So we have reinstated that program for this year. And that program was not active the past few years when we saw the lower levels of retention in our freshmen students. So we’re hoping that some of the technology, some of the new outreach that we’re doing and also that program in particular is going to help us improve our retention going forward,” Cooper said.

Efforts to Improve Retention

Cooper recently submitted a request to administration and the Board of Trustees to purchase a retention platform, as Winthrop is one of only two public institutions in South Carolina that does not already have one. The retention of 13 additional students would pay the annual cost of this platform. 

“On our side, we can see: Which students are going to aren’t going to class? Who’s not enrolled? Who’s not advised? When we see a student who is in distress, we can actually see all the information about the students. So we can see: Who’s their professors? Do they live in the residence hall? Which residence hall is it? Are they in TRiO? Are they an athlete? 

“So right now, all those pieces of information about a student are in different places. So nowhere does all the information exist about a student. And these are systems that really pull all that information together,” Cooper said.

To drive applications for the Fall 2022 semester, the Board of Trustees allocated $500,000 to University Communications and Marketing to “do a multi-phase marketing campaign to help generate more applications, to help foster relationships with students and also to assist with student retention,” according to Miller. 

A campaign is already underway in the Columbia area, where $50,000 was used to create billboards, targeted digital advertisement and direct mailing campaigns. Miller said he believes the efforts undertaken, such as new admission policies and the marketing campaign, have already had an impact on future enrollment. 

“We’ve made some changes in the way that we’re admitting students this year. So in previous years, the college didn’t start admitting students until Dec. 1, but we’ve accelerated that timeline, and we began admitting students at Oct. 15 for this upcoming year.” Miller said. “So currently, we’re at 24% ahead on admissions for this upcoming year than we were at this point in time last year for our fall 2021 class.”

This story was written for and posted to The Palmetto Report on Feb 2, 2022.

Published by

Christian Smith

My name is Christian Smith, and I am a student at Winthrop University pursuing a major in mass communication and minor in political science. I am passionate and knowledgeable about local news; accountable and transparent government; diversity, equity, and inclusion; public document gathering and in-depth research.

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