KNOXVILLE — When students arrived on campus this semester, they may have been surprised by a small paper sign, on the door of Johnson Hall First North Hall, that simply reads “guest housing.”
While the guest housing is nice for visitors to the university, university officials would rather have students staying in those rooms. The hall closure is due to to a surprising drop in enrollment the university has experienced this fall.
The 2016-2017 academic year came with the first drop in enrollment for Johnson University in four years, Tommy Smith, Vice President for Academic Affairs/Provost, and Richard Clark, Vice President for External Relations/Chief Advancement Officer, both confirmed.
New student enrollment for JUTN went down 11 percent and for JUFL it went down 13 percent. However, online enrollment went up 19 percent, Clark informed.
“We are down overall about 55 or 56 students from last fall,” Smith said. “We are significantly down in traditional undergraduates on both JUTN and JUFL campuses.
Smith said traditional undergraduate enrollment was where the largest drop was seen. This is a major concern to university administrators since it is such a large part of the university’s revenue stream.
“We are about even in on campus graduate students, and then online we are way up. Online we are nearly up 60 students overall,” he said.
There are currently a total of 1,327 students enrolled at Johnson.
Up until July ’16 an increase in student enrollment was anticipated.
“July saw an unprecedented drop off in our ‘pipeline’,” Clark said. Clark was referring to the pipeline of perspective students who were considering Johnson.
Smith told Faculty Friday that towards the end of June, applications were outpacing past years by about 50.
“In June we were still tracking ahead of last year,” Smith said. “Then in July and August, the bottom fell out. We had a whole bunch of students that decided to go somewhere else.”
Smith said the decrease in new student enrollment numbers was exacerbated by the fact that many students did not return to JU following last year. Also, a record graduating class contributed to lower enrollment this year.
“. . . and that’s why the big drop,” he said. “You can’t always control the new students.”
While university administrators are concerned about the enrollment drop, they are still optimistic about Johnson’s future.
“We certainly are concerned when we don’t have a record enrollment or meet our goals that we have,” Smith said. “No one is panicking though. We recognize that we’ve got good people, good procedures in place, and a great campus.”
JUTN had record enrollment across the past four years, and Smith said to be down one year is not unusual.
The fall in enrollment does have administrators reevaluating this year’s budget. Johnson is somewhat dependent on tuition income for revenue and Smith said “if tuition and income is down, if students are down, then we have to make adjustments in the budget.”
Smith did say students could be assured that no cuts of any kind were made on essential services, staff, hours or faculty members, and no programs were diminished in result of the drop.
“Long term, if this [decrease in enrollment] were to happen year after year then you’ve got to start looking at programs and personnel,”Smith said. “But one year, like this, is not going to effect programs or personnel.”
No single reason can be pinpointed as to why Johnson has experienced this sudden drop. Both Smith and Clark agree that it is a combination of factors, of which all are being extensively studied.
The first step in moving forward includes gaining a better understanding as to why there was a decrease in enrollment.
“It’s diagnosis before prescription,” Clark said. “It’s always better to have an understanding of what got you [to where you are] before you start deciding we’re going to do ‘this’ or ‘that’, and start chasing down a solution that might not fit the situation.”
Clark said that both external and internal reasons likely contributed to the drop.
“In other words, the climate surrounding overall college enrollment is changing, it is a more competitive environment for universities then it ever has been, and there are a variety of factors related to that,” he said. “Additionally, internally, we’ve had a lot of turnover in our admissions department. Especially at the highest levels.”
Clark said a number of directors had left the school and new personnel are in place.
“Of course we gained a lot of directors too, very good people [are] in these positions now,” he said. “We also lost our Vice President for enrollment services, Tim Wingfield, this last year. All of this instability, we think, has contributed. We think there are some specific things we have to do better than last year.”
“There is a definite process by which the admissions office works with, we look at every aspect of this,” Smith said.
For Smith, the most important focus going forward is retention. Retention is the rate at which you keep continuing students from year to year.
“We have historically had a very high retention rate, 85-90 percent,” Smith said. ” This year it is down to about 80 percent.” Smith said there was also a drop in retention from fall to spring last year, which is concerning.
The university recently hired a new Director of Retention for this academic year, Demetrius Jaggers, who has been tasked with evaluating and addressing retention issues.
“He is already putting together teams on both campuses to analyze retention from the last four or five years,” Smith said. “[They] look at what happened this year and then try to put some policies and processes in place to try and improve retention.”
JUFL has also seen a drop in continuing students.
“In Florida we had about 13 fewer continuing students,” Smith said. “So we go back and analyze, who are those students, why didn’t they come back, and if there are reasons we can find and correct, we want to correct.”
Smith said both campus communities will continue to focus on what they know works.
“We do know, what works for new students, is making sure we keep personal touch,” he said. “What Johnson does, is we connect personally with these applicants.”
The drop in enrollment is a situation that no one has direct control over, but Clark said they will respond to the reality of the situation.
“We are not waiting around,” Smith said.
“What we believe is that Johnson is very good at providing a value,” Clark said. “There are things that Johnson is able to provide that no public University is ever going to be able to provide to students, no matter how inexpensive it is. The ‘value’ is what we focus on.”
“We provide it at a comparatively inexpensive rate,” he continued. “We do everything we can to keep the cost of education here, within reach of every qualified student.”
Clark said that Johnson’s donor base is a significant part of the value the university provides to students.
“Our donors are committed to seeing that a quality education is provided to [Johnson] students,” he said. “Beyond keeping the cost low the value of the education is something that you’re just not going to get on a public campus.”
“What we’re interested in doing, is getting great commissioned students out into the world, to make an impact in the world for the cause of Christ,” he said.
Another external factor that administrators are studying is the impact of the Tennessee Promise, which is in its second year.
Tennessee Promise is a program that offers Tennessee students a ‘last-dollar’ scholarship, meaning the scholarship will cover tuition and fees not covered by the Pell grant, the HOPE scholarship, or state student assistance funds. The scholarship is primarily used for community colleges.
Smith said of the Tennessee Promise program that “we’re nervous, but so far we haven’t been directly impacted.”
Another state program is also impacting the university.
“There is a program called Tennessee Transfer Pathways, that makes it easy for students to come from community college to a four year college without losing any credits,” Smith said. “We are getting ready to become a part of that program.”
Smith will be going down to the Florida campus next week to meet with the admissions staff, to evaluate and advise a plan for the coming year. This is already underway on the Tennessee campus.
“We see this as a one year reversal for this year,”Clark said. “We think that there are great years moving forward and we welcome partnership with our student body to see that happen.”
“This could be our correction year,” Smith agreed. “Despite the drop in enrollment, applications last year were up, they were significantly higher than the year before.”
Both Clark and Smith agree that there is no reason to worry about the future of Johnson.
“We welcome [your] prayers, thoughts, ideas and efforts on behalf of the university to help reverse [the drop],” Clark said. “One of the things that we know for sure, is that family and friends who refer their family members and friends rank right up there at the top of the ways and means by which students come to Johnson.”
A final enrollment count will not be available until mid October.
Fluctuation in enrollment numbers are very normal and very reversible.
“We believe that God has great things in store for Johnson as a University and for our student body,” Clark said.