St. Cloud State University eliminates programs, lays off faculty due to enrollment decline

St. Cloud State University campus
Several additions to Atwood Center at St. Cloud State University have been done throughout the years to meet the changing demands at the St. Cloud campus.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Colleges and universities across the U.S. are struggling with declines in student enrollment, but St. Cloud State University in central Minnesota has been hit harder than many others. 

Over the past decade, the university's enrollment has fallen by about 6,000 students or 38 percent.

University officials say revenues haven’t kept up with instructional costs, creating a structural deficit. Last month, they announced cuts to faculty and programs to address a looming $24 million budget gap for the next fiscal year.

But some faculty worry that St. Cloud State’s push to expand online education is making things worse. And they question the university’s contract with a for-profit company that receives a substantial portion of tuition revenue for managing online programs.

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University President Robbyn Wacker said St. Cloud State’s enrollment has been affected by several factors including the COVID-19 pandemic and demographics, as more higher education institutions compete for fewer students.

“All of those factors have led over the last decade to where we find ourselves right now, which is simply that we have fewer students enrolled and we can't maintain the same number of faculty that we had years ago,” she said.

Last month, Wacker announced the university will lay off 21 faculty, phase out several majors and freeze admissions to about 70 minors and degree programs, including philosophy, religious studies, marriage and family therapy and theater. It also reduced positions through early retirements and hiring freezes. 

Wacker said the university is using a targeted approach for the cuts. Most of the majors being eliminated had just a handful of students enrolled. 

In fact, 35 of St. Cloud State’s programs are responsible for 75 percent of undergraduate student enrollment, she said.

And while the Legislature appropriated more money for higher education this year, the state’s share of public universities’ funding is considerably smaller than in the past, Wacker said.

“So we have to be incredibly thoughtful and focused on what we’re going to deliver and how we’re going to deliver it,” she said.

A person makes their way
A person makes their way toward Husky Plaza on June 6 at St. Cloud State University, where enrollment has fallen by 38 percent in the last decade.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

Cuts, online expansion raise concerns

St. Cloud State faculty leaders say the cuts have hurt morale and created unease about the future.

“Many faculty are disillusioned,” said Mumbi Mwangi, a gender and women’s studies professor and St. Cloud State’s new faculty association president. “They are angry. They are fearful because they don’t know about the future of their career or the future of their livelihood.”

Some faculty are also questioning St. Cloud State’s push to offer more accelerated online courses aimed largely at non-traditional students.

The university sees an opportunity in the large number of adults who have some college credits, but never finished a degree, Wacker said.

“They’re working full time. They have family commitments,” she said. “They would love to complete a degree or pivot into a new profession or grow in the profession that they’re in, but they cannot just stop their lives and come to campus.”

But faculty have raised questions about St. Cloud State’s contract with a for-profit company, Academic Partnerships. It provides marketing, outreach and recruiting for the university’s online courses, in exchange for half of the tuition revenue.

Jenna Chernega is a Winona State University professor and president of the Inter Faculty Organization, the union that represents faculty at Minnesota State universities. She said there’s concern that the decisions were made without faculty input.

“It’s faculty who are going to be doing the work of teaching these courses, designing these programs,” Chernega said. “And they weren’t given the opportunity to buy in or not buy into this model. They were simply told, ‘This is what we're doing.’”

Husky Plaza on the campus of St. Cloud State University
The university announced it would lay off 21 faculty, phase out several majors and freeze admissions to about 70 minors and degree programs, including philosophy, religious studies, marriage and family therapy, and theater.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

One of those voicing concern is Stephen Philion, chair of St. Cloud State’s sociology department. Philion said he’s not completely opposed to online learning, but teaching asynchronous classes on a screen is not the same as engaging with students face to face in a classroom.

“It’s something that is very different from what most of us got into this career for: the opportunity to actively interact with students to develop their learning potential and their full growth as human beings, not just as workers,” he said.

Philion also worries that the push to expand online classes, combined with the drop in enrollment, has led to fewer students and decreased activity on campus. He said some students have described it as a “ghost town.”

“How do you build a community at St. Cloud State University if your push is to go full bore online?” he asked.

A person poses for a portrait
“Many faculty are disillusioned,” said Mumbi Mwangi, a gender and women’s studies professor and St. Cloud State’s new faculty association president.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Contract under scrutiny

For-profit online program management companies have come under some scrutiny from some members of Congress and consumer groups, with critics accusing them of deceptive marketing tactics and questionable business practices.

The U.S. Department of Education plans to increase oversight of the outside contractors that colleges and universities use to help run online programs.

Wacker said Academic Partnerships works with more than 60 public universities across the country and has helped St. Cloud State connect with students that it otherwise wouldn’t reach.

“They provide us with the marketing, the outreach, the recruiting, that we could never, ever find the resources to be able to compete in that market,” she said.

But some faculty have questioned how signing a contract to give up a substantial portion of tuition revenue will help the university’s financial problems.

“The faculty position is that we are not very convinced that that is even sustainable,” Mwangi said.

The Minnesota State system has asked St. Cloud State to pause its expansion of online programs with Academic Partnerships until it can go through an approval process.

“We’re looking at academic integrity, we’re looking at rigor and we’re looking at student success,” said Satasha Green-Stephen, Minnesota State’s senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

Green-Stephen said the review also will look at whether faculty and student engagement was part of the decision-making process and whether the business model is sustainable. 

New SCSU president Robbyn Wacker
University President Robbyn Wacker said down enrollment traces back to the pandemic and demographics, as more higher education institutions compete for fewer students.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2018

Moving forward

The decade-long trend of budget cuts has been painful to the university and the St. Cloud community at large. In 2019, the university eliminated several sports including its men’s football team.

Chernega said enrollment declines aren’t as dramatic at some other Minnesota State universities, such as Mankato. She questions whether more cuts will help increase SCSU’s enrollment.

“Continuing down that road of just cutting, cutting, cutting doesn't seem like it’s going to be solving their budget problem anytime soon,” she said.

Wacker called the decision to lay off faculty “heartbreaking.” But she said she's optimistic that the university’s financial picture will improve and enrollment will grow in the coming years. 

While undergraduate enrollment is flat, Wacker said, enrollment in graduate programs for fall is up 13 percent. The university’s retention rate is up and more students are living in residence halls on campus, she said.

“What I want folks to know is that there's nothing wrong with St. Cloud State. It’s a great university,” Wacker said. “Yes, we have some challenges. We’re addressing those and we’re moving forward and continue to serve Minnesotans.”

A student study at the Learning Resources Center
Grad student Caroline Stringer has the lower level of James W. Miller Learning Resources Center to herself on June 5, to work on some of the summer classes she is taking at St. Cloud State University.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News