Twice a year – in the fall and spring – I share an update on the current health and future outlook of Northern Arizona University with students, faculty and staff, the local community, our Regents, supporters and stakeholders.
At our Fall Campus Forum, I reported that NAU’s future is bright. Our retention numbers are strong – up 4 percentage points (77.6%, from 73.5% last fall). We have a plan in place to focus recruitment on areas of growth and are strengthening programs to ensure we sustain enrollment in light of a shrinking college-going population nationally and in Arizona.
As NAU turns 120, we are laser-focused on reinforcing our brand, one that embraces our roots of discovery, our commitment to training the state’s teachers, our strong student-faculty relationship and a beautiful setting that makes us one of the most desirable college towns in the country.
We are fortunate to make our home among the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest, unique canyons and a dark sky community – all providing a natural laboratory to study the earth, our climate, the skies and our planets.
Our refreshed brand campaign, “Bring Your Aspirations,” focuses on these roots and the promise that if you enroll at NAU, you will be greeted, nurtured and supported in making these dreams come true.
In addition to our commitment to our students, we are dedicated to meeting the needs of Arizona’s workforce and economy, ensuring our students have strong prospects after graduation and that our state’s needs for a qualified workforce are met.
NAU experienced steady enrollment growth for more than a decade. But there’s been a natural decline driven by factors such as fewer college-age people, low college-going rates in Arizona, a booming job market, questions about the value of education, and an unpredictable international student visa environment.
Funding is top of mind, as well. State appropriations dropped from 22% of our revenue in 2014 to 18% today. We educate an additional 3,000 students (11% more) today with $700 less per student since 2014 and $5,000 less per student since 2008. During this time, we have used grants and contracts, sponsored research funding, auxiliary funding, and other sources to grow our overall revenues each year. We are focused on showing the value we bring to the state’s economy and to the future of our state’s population – and to restore funding.
Institutions nationally are engaged in finding solutions for enrollment declines, including reducing costs, offering more financial aid, restructuring curricula, adding new majors and online and hybrid options to provide students more flexibility.
Because trends show that undergraduate numbers will continue to fall for the next 10-12 years, our work in FY19 focused on the development of a Strategic Enrollment Management Plan.
While traditional freshman student growth continues to be a focal point, we are also looking at other ways to sustain enrollment, including demographics, competition, price point, value propositions and market opportunities. We are also sharpening academic offerings to meet areas of high demand, including online and graduate programs.
Our efforts are showing results.
Noting the need, NAU has been offering online education for 20 years. Currently, more than 21% of our students are earning degrees online, placing us in the top 15% of both our Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) peers.
We also boosted graduate offerings, resulting in a 5.7% increase in graduate enrollment, with more than 225 students at our Flagstaff mountain campus, online and statewide. This is the largest growth over the last decade, both in numbers and percentages.
While some universities are starting to see the need to move closer to students, NAU has been serving the state with 20 locations throughout Arizona, with a significant presence in Phoenix and Tucson for years.
We are also anticipating evolving student interests, launching new programs and continuing to explore areas of need and opportunity. We recently launched six programs and continue to engage our provost, deans and faculty to evaluate new offerings.
Our refreshed brand campaign, Bring Your Aspirations, focuses on an education centered on the passions, ambitions and preferences of individual students. It assures a student-centered experience delivered by a world-class faculty dedicated to teaching and providing opportunities for undergraduate research.
It stresses that an NAU education can be accessed however and wherever it is convenient and relevant to individual students. Learning happens everywhere – from the Arctic and closer to home, in the North Valley, in Yuma, in Flagstaff and in Prescott Valley.
Despite funding and enrollment challenges, NAU’s future is bright.
Today, we are excited to celebrate NAU’s 120th class. Our first-year freshman class is the most diverse we have ever had. Their top majors are nursing, biomedical sciences, business, criminology and criminal justice and biology. Their average age is 19. Their most common names are Emily and Jacob. They are involved in research, in giving back to the community, and they continue to be our best teachers, helping us evolve and stay relevant now and in the future.
We remain as strong as we have ever been and we are ready for the future.
Bring your aspirations! QCBN
By Rita Hartung Cheng
Rita Hartung Cheng is president of Northern Arizona University.