Demographic changes fuel enrollment fears at UMass

The University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst.

The University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst. PHOTO BY DAN LITTLE

By COLIN A. YOUNG

State House News Service

Published: 07-09-2024 12:50 PM

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan has been closely watching the spate of higher education closures, and said in an interview over the weekend that UMass has a strategy he hopes will spare it from the same concerning demographic shift driving those shutdowns.

Consolidation or closure has been a trend among higher education institutions over the last five to 10 years. Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy announced in June that it plans to close as a result of “significant financial headwinds,” the latest in a list of Bay State schools that have either shuttered outright or merged into another institution that includes Bay State College, Boston Conservatory, Mount Ida College, Newbury College, Pine Manor College and Wheelock College. Meehan said he expects to see more closures.

“There’s a demographic issue — not just in Massachusetts and New England, [the] northeastern part of the country — in that the number of students that are graduating high school is coming down, it’s going to come down at a faster pace. That’s one of the reasons why you see so many colleges in New England that have closed. The non-elite privates are in trouble ... eventually, it’s going to affect the public universities,” Meehan said on WCVB’s “On The Record” in an interview that aired Sunday.

He added, “And I can tell you, we’re focused like a laser beam at UMass on making sure we keep our national rankings up, make sure our reputation is up, so we won’t have the problem of enrollment going down.”

Meehan has been warning since at least last spring that UMass is starting to contend with ”very strong headwinds” of enrollment pressures fueled by lower birth rates, more competition for students, and people questioning the return on investment from a college degree. UMass enrollment was projected to decrease by 0.3 percent in fiscal year 2024, part of a three-year downward trend.

In 2019, UMass touted itself as “one of the fastest-growing institutions in the nation, with student enrollment rising more than 20 percent during the past decade” and pointing to combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment of 74,572 in fall 2017. The same university webpage now lists a fall 2023 combined enrollment of 73,593 students.

And the “points of pride” section of the webpage that in 2019 trumpeted UMass’s swift growth now focuses instead on the system’s standing in national rankings in keeping with Meehan’s strategy.

“UMass is now ranked 43rd among all U.S. institutions and 22nd among all U.S. public universities in the 2024 Times Higher Education World University Rankings,” the system wrote. “UMass remains the top public university in New England, a position it has held in the Times Higher Education rankings since 2014.”

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The trend of declining enrollment and the threat it could pose to UMass caught the attention of Sen. Marc Pacheco of Taunton, who successfully pushed for an amendment to the Senate’s fiscal year 2025 state budget to create a special commission to study enrollment issues at all five UMass campuses. The group — which would include campus leaders, UMass board representatives, labor officials, and state government leaders — would be charged with producing recommendations “for short- and long-term solutions aimed at reversing these trends, if possible,” Pacheco said.

Pacheco used undergraduate enrollment figures and said the UMass system has seen a decline from 57,199 undergrads in 2019 to 53,854 in 2023. And he said the UMass system’s student retention rate has dropped from 94 percent in 2016 to 90 percent as of 2021.

“UMass produces 20,000 graduates each year and has 330,000 alums living and working in Massachusetts. Seventy-five percent of the graduates live and work in Massachusetts five years after graduation, showing that investments in the system not only produce higher-skilled and educated workers, but also highly skilled and educated workers that stay in our commonwealth,” the senator said during budget debate in May. “That is extremely important for our economy. UMass is a crucial job creator as the state’s third largest employer, with 26,000 employees, while also supporting around 40,000 external jobs across the state.”

Pacheco added, “This system is too important to our state’s economy for us to let fall to the wayside.”

Pacheco’s amendment was adopted on a 39-0 roll call vote, but will have to survive ongoing negotiations with the House if it is going to make it into the final budget bill that will be delivered to Gov. Maura Healey.