Why construct buildings for new programs when enrolments are expected to decline by 8%? (13 June 2014)

In the 9 April 2014 issue of University Affairs magazine, David K. Foot, an economist from University of Toronto, wrote a concise article (here) about impending enrolment decreases due to demographics. Population decreases for the age-group finishing high school is not news. Our vice president finance has been warning us for several years about an impending 8% enrolment decline (see my 3 December 2013 posting and/or click here for the data). What is most interesting about David Foot’s article is his primary recommendation for what universities should do about this expected enrolment decline: “First, do not expand capacity. By all means upgrade outdated facilities and replace buildings where necessary, but don’t create additional space.”

Carleton certainly has plenty of outdated facilities in need of upgrading. Recent campus-wide electrical failures should be a hint. There is also flooding in many buildings, excessive indoor temperatures in both winter and summer, many non-functioning elevators and automatic doors for those in wheelchairs, etc. In the face of decreasing enrolments, we should be revitalizing existing infrastructure, not erecting building for new programs.

Antithetically, Carleton is proposing to take the exact opposite tack by constructing a new $35 million health science building, a department that currently has only one faculty member. We also lack a medical school, nursing school, dental school, pharmacy school, veterinary school, public health program, kinesiology program, epidemiology program, and pretty much any other form of health related program. I could almost (but not quite) tolerate this errant expense for a new health building if it was someone else’s money. In the past, Carleton’s academic buildings have all been constructed directly out of provincial infrastructure funds. But, at the 29 April 2014 open session of the board, the vice president finance stated that the new health science building would be constructed by the board’s approval of long-term debt. The budget that was approved that day allocated the first $22.6 million of that long-term debt for this new academic building. This seems like an especially reckless move for a fiscally conservative university.

The flip side of this story is to try to compensate for demographics by somehow bringing in more students from different cross-sections of the population. Last time the population at-large went through a trough in the cycle, universities compensated by admitting more female students, which was fabulous. But that won’t help again now that a majority of university students are already female. David Foot suggests recruiting huge numbers of international students, a market that Carleton’s president has been trying to tap into since her arrival a half-dozen years ago, but that also isn’t making that much of a difference. If we have any chance of smoothing through an 8% decrease in enrolment, we will need to do something more radical.

Let me propose one such radical solution, one that could also greatly increase the diversity of our student body, which is still quite white. Look to that most progressive of jurisdictions, namely Texas. Yes, I am being somewhat facetious, knowing that Texas is sufficiently backwards that for most of my lifetime the federal courts objected to disparities in primary and secondary school funding because schools were being financed by local property taxes. Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Justice continually badgers the state of Texas about civil rights violations. But Texas has figured out a creative way to simultaneously make post-secondary education more diverse and increase enrolments, even in an era when the U.S. courts have repudiated affirmative action. Texas established a program by which any student who graduated in the top 10% (now 7%) of their high school class could enroll in any state university of their choice.

Carleton could do something similar to Texas. We could say that the top 10% (or pick some other percent) of any Ontario public high school graduating class would be automatically admitted into any program of their choice at Carleton. It does not matter whether you are in the top 10% of your class at an elite Toronto public high school, a public high school for so-called ‘gifted students’, a poor inner city high school, a small rural agricultural high school, or an aboriginal high school. Furthermore, we could and should extend such a program to the top 10% of students from any indigenous high school outside of the province, guaranteeing provincial tuition or better for any First Nations, Inuit, or Métis students. This will drastically increase our enrolments and level the playing field between high school students that live in poor versus wealthy communities.

I admit that such a radical idea will require extra funding to help support students, especially those who entered Carleton from communities with less money and other disadvantaged students. As Paul Tough wrote in the 15 May 2014 New York Times (here): “About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree.” Therefore Carleton could and probably should beef up programs like the Student Academic Success Centre, the Science Student Success Centre, the Aboriginal Student Centre, Paul Menton Centre, etc. This seems like a far better way to spend an extra $35 million, i.e. spending on people rather than on new buildings that are not intended to replace crumbling ones.

While voting down a debt-financed health science building falls under purview of the Board’s building and finance committees, my suggestion about a Texas style approach to increasing enrolment and student diversity does not seem to fall under the auspices of any Board of Governors or Senate committee. Sometimes it is more than just students that fall through the proverbial cracks. Let’s see if we can do better. Thanks.

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