Wright State trustees during a budget hearing at the university.
Photo: Max Filby/ STAFF
Photo: Max Filby/ STAFF

Projected enrollment drop could cost Wright State $9 million

Around 14,411 students are expected to attend WSU starting in late August, a 7.4 percent decline from last fall, a Dayton Daily News examination of the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2020 shows. The last time Wright State’s total enrollment dipped below 15,000 was in 1982 when 14,826 were enrolled, university records show.

But, there may be time for improvement because registration started later this year and there are still more than eight weeks until the first day of classes on Aug. 26, said Walt Branson, chief business officer and vice president of finance. Enrollment isn’t calculated and reported to the Ohio Department of Higher Education until two weeks after the start of fall semester.

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“That would tell you we would think we’re going to improve,” Branson said. “It’s really a process we have to go through to drill down with several people. We’re really trying to track all that down at this point and get a more precise estimate.”

If enrollment projections stay the same, the $9 million decrease would pose yet another financial challenge for Wright State to overcome as tuition and fee revenue is the school’s largest single source of revenue.

At this point, Wright State is expecting to absorb around a $2.2 million decrease in state funding as well, though that number could change because Ohio’s budget has yet to be signed into law. Gov. Mike DeWine will need to sign a budget sent to his desk from the legislature no later than June 30.

The university also expects to take in around $400,000 less in investment income in FY 2o20, according to the preliminary budget approved by Wright State’s board of trustees on an interim basis. Trustees approved a temporary, 45-day budget extension on June 21 as they await more information on enrollment and state funding.

To make up the potential $9 million difference, Wright State could slash its payroll by more than $2 million and contracted labor and services by nearly $1.2 million. Instead of layoffs, the university will continue to leave positions vacant, Branson said.

“We’re really able to manage a lot by looking at vacancies,” Branson said. “That’s been a large part of what we’ve done in the last few years.”

Branson couldn’t say how many jobs would need to be left vacant because that calculation depends on the combination of positions that open up and their pay, he said. The plan to save more money by leaving positions vacant didn’t surprise Noeleen McIlvenna, a Wright State history professor and new president of the Wright State chapter of the American Association of University Professors.

“We’ve been aware that people are leaving. It hasn’t been the happiest environment for people to work in for a few years,” McIlvenna said. “It’s sad and we’d like to work with the administration so when it comes time to fill them…they fill them wisely so the options for students remain as broad as possible.”

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Wright State’s scholarships and fellowships will decrease by more than $2.7 million next year. Although the scholarship funding will only decrease because there are fewer students attending WSU, Branson said.

Despite the trouble with enrollment, Wright State will likely add around $5.5 million to its reserve fund at the close of fiscal year 2019 on June 30, according to the interim budget. If that projection comes to fruition then reserves will be boosted to around $60 million after years of overspending drained them to $31 million in fiscal year 2017.

The boost to reserves marks a rebound from when Wright State was forced to reduce its spending by around $53 million in FY 2018.

“Really from a financial standpoint, we need to keep doing everything that we can to replenish our reserves,” Branson said.

Wright State will aim to add at least another $3 million to reserves by June 30, 2020, according to the interim budget. If successful, it would mark the third year in a row Wright State has added money to its reserve fund, Branson said.

The savings haven’t come easily though and further enrollment declines could threaten future surpluses.

This year’s enrollment decline is due to a number of factors including demographic shifts that have noticeably impacted similar schools such as the the University of Akron and Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio. While Wright State suffered a 13 percent decline in enrollment throughout the last five years, Akron saw a 27 percent decrease and Shawnee State suffered a 25 percent drop, according to the interim budget.

A 20-day faculty strike earlier will also likely contribute to a Wright State enrollment dip this fall, Branson said. The strike ended Feb. 11 after the administration and faculty union negotiated a deal that extends two contracts through June 30, 2023.

The strike was “just one more thing” in four years of incidents though, McIlvenna said. A federal investigation into H1-B visa fraud that the university settled for $1 million last year has likely impacted enrollment as have budget cuts, she said.

“The critical thing is now there is a contract and we all do need to work together,” McIlvenna said. “Let’s adjust the university to the new enrollment and make sure it’s still the best university it can be.”

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