Friday, September 23, 2016

Enrollment Puzzles

A colleague mentioned that we had more students on campus this year than last so it occurred to me to go to the DMI Web site and look at the data.  The very first link on the page is to another page on Student Enrollment data.   There is a lot of information there.  Unfortunately, in my view, the information is clustered by semester so it is not immediate how to make longitudinal comparisons.

So I downloaded some of the more recent information and put that into one spreadsheet.  These give the last four fall semester enrollments (including fall 2016) sorted by class level.  If you stare at this a bit there are some interesting things to observe.

First, my friend was right, overall enrollments have been drifting up.  Second, focusing just on undergraduate enrollment, enrollments rise with class level, lowest with Freshmen and highest with Seniors.  Third, if students advance one status level per year, the Freshmen in one year would be Sophomores the next year, etc. So you can track how an entering class seems to be doing by going up along the diagonal and to the right.  It appears that enrollments for any class rise with class level.

As there surely is some amount of separation from the university - students drop out of college entirely or transfer elsewhere - there must be more students who transfer in and/or students who stay within the same status level for more than one year.  The effect is particularly pronounced for Seniors.  I found the size of the Senior cohort relative to the size of the Freshmen cohort quite surprising.

So what explains these observations.  I'm going to guess a little as to what is going on.  Somewhere around 10 years ago the U of I was under a lot of pressure to accept transfers from within state for students who had graduated from Community College.  This was the so-called 2 + 2 model and was a way for students and their families to keep the cost of college down because Community College tuition is much lower than U of I tuition.  I am sure that with some more digging one could isolate the magnitude of students who enter under the 2 + 2 model as well as to consider the volume of other transfer students.  I, for one, would be interested in knowing how different the composition of undergraduate enrollment is now as compared, for example, to the mid 1990s, when the U of I was still considered a best buy by U.S. News, before the U of I had embraced a high(er) tuition approach. In turn, I'd be interested in what those composition effects do to student life, both in and out of the classroom.  To my knowledge, the matter has gotten little or no discussion.

Something else must be going on to explain why there are so many Seniors, especially since students probably don't transfer in just for their senior year.  Among the possibilities there are: (1) some majors may have substantially increased the requirements, necessitating more time to degree, (2) more students are getting dual degrees and that takes longer to accomplish, (3) students can't get into some required classes that are oversubscribed so have to stay additional semesters to complete those courses, and (4) some students may simply draw out their Senior experience so they make it more than a year even when there is no academic necessity for that.

Another question that arises, looking at these numbers, is what sort of pattern should we want and how should that pattern depend on how much money the U of I gets from the state?  Still another question is about the relationship between tuition revenue and cost of educating the students.  Presumably, large lecture classes entail much lower expenditure per student.  In the old days, when the number of transfer students was comparatively small, the Freshmen and Sophomore classes, many in large lecture format, provided a subsidy for the Junior and Senior classes.  If that subsidy isn't really there now, because those transfer students are taking their Gen Eds elsewhere, does the U of I break even financially on the transfer students?

I, for one, wasn't expecting to find this pattern when looking at the numbers.  (I expected the numbers to be flat across class level.)  So I encourage you to take a look.  You'll find it interesting.