RIVER FALLS — After three years of leading the pack for growth among University of Wisconsin institutions, River Falls campus leaders this week welcomed the second straight year of smaller freshman classes.
University projections showed 1,200 students in this year’s incoming freshman class. The figure represents the second straight year of enrollment declines after peaking at 1,325 new students in 2017. Last year’s incoming class saw 1,314 new students.
The development didn’t go unnoticed during an Aug. 26 all-employee welcome ceremony on campus. UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen said the figures don’t represent a crisis, but will have repercussions.
“We will have less tuition revenue,” he told university faculty, staff and employees, adding that it serves as a reminder “that we have to be vigilant” in recruiting and retaining students. He said the university expected this year’s freshman class to total about 1,300 students.
Sarah Nelson, the university’s executive director of Admissions & New Student and Family Programs, said the reason behind the decline is elusive.
“If I could pinpoint that answer, I’d be a consultant,” she said, cautioning that the numbers are not yet finalized.
Nelson said university staff will be plunging into data to look for clues.
She was part of the team that helped UWRF’s new student enrollment rebound after bottoming out at 1,015 new students in 2014. Nelson said that meant an “all hands-on-deck approach” to raising the numbers, which included a communications and marketing drive, along with more scholarship opportunities.
The effort saw results: River Falls was tops for growth among all UW-System universities between 2014-17, achieving 31% growth in that period.
Like Van Galen, Nelson is not panicking over the latest figures. But since the university is dependent on enrollment for institutional funding and support, it does have her attention.
“We’re all scratching our heads a little bit,” she said.
State lawmakers kept the UW-System tuition freeze in place, meaning Wisconsin resident tuition will remain $6,428 at UWRF for the 2019-20 school year. Van Galen voiced concern about the freeze in his remarks at the opening ceremony.
“I do worry about this for the longer term,” he said to the audience, which included Sen. Patty Schachtner, D-Somerset, and Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls..
University employees will receive pay raises of 2% over the next two years under the new state budget.
Van Galen said he was encouraged by $2 million allotted in the state budget for initial funding of the SciTech project, which proposes to replace outdated science facilities with a $111 million building where Hagstad Hall now stands . He said the preliminary funding “is a very big milestone” in the process, which will seek additional funds in the next biennium.
This year students will also have access to two new bachelor’s degree programs: biomedical and health sciences. A master’s program in strength and conditioning will also begin this year.
Nelson said those add to a host of other new programs launched in recent years, including criminology, neurology and agricultural engineering.
She said students this year will also have access to a new online tool called “Navigate,” which is aimed at providing assistance for everything from financial aid to mental crisis to academics. Student success will also be the driving force behind an overhaul at the Rodli Center, slated to be unveiled in January.