USU slashes scholarship awards, sees freshman class size drop by 10 percent

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When Utah State University realized it was giving scholarships at an unsustainable rate, university administrators placed their bets on a scholarship policy that awarded fewer dollars to students and ultimately resulted in a 10 percent drop of freshmen on campus this fall.

The most significant cost-saving measure the university implemented was the introduction of a three-tier system for alumni legacy waivers, which are handed to out-of-state students who have a parent or grandparent that graduated from USU.

The waiver program provided in-state tuition prices. Under the change, the amount awarded will be based on a student’s index number, which is calculated using their GPA and SAT or ACT score. Additionally, the amount awarded for several academic scholarships was reduced by 5 percent.

In 2015-16, USU’s Admissions Office awarded $17,911,792 in out-of-state waivers to 1,589 recipients

“We realized we couldn’t do this because the quality of our students is going up,” USU President Noelle Cockett said in an Aug. 18 USU Board of Trustees meeting. Over a two-year period, second, third and fourth generation Aggies contributed to a $7 million jump in legacy waivers awarded, Cockett said.

“We had to say to recruitment that we can’t be that generous,” she said. “We can’t afford this, and believe me this was a serious concern.”

So USU reconciled with its budget. While results are still trickling in – and immediate measures show that 300 fewer freshmen attended USU this year –  the school is predicting the newly-implemented strategy will be successful.

It’s all a part of the university’s strategy for growth, said John Mortensen, the assistant vice president for Enrollment Services and Retention at USU.

“Some [Utah] institutions are growing faster than they can handle and their retention rates are suffering,” Mortensen said. “We want to continue to provide excellent services to the students we already have.”

Additionally, the university was prepared for the initial drop in attendance, said USU spokesman Tim Vitale.

“We made a decision as an institution, knowing that that decision would cause a decline in student numbers,” Vitale said,” but we looked for a way to make the student experience more financially efficient for students.”

In Fall of 2014, the university changed its credit plateau from between 13 and 18 credits to between 12 and 18. The credit plateau allows students to take any number of classes between 13 and 18 credits for a flat price. This change, Vitale said, increased the incentive for students to take on more classes. USU saw the number of students taking at least 15 credits increase by 30 percent.

In the same year, the university lowered the cost of its online courses to match the price of its traditional classroom courses.

All of this, Vitale said, is a part of USU’s strategy to help students and manage growth.

“Students are saving money,” he said. “We think we are already seeing payoffs for students; of course, we’ll wait and see and we continue to monitor all of the time.”

Last year, USU was the only university in the state that didn’t see an increase in enrollment, which the school credits to fewer out-of-state and online students. But in the next decade, 61,000 students are predicted to be added to Utah college and university campuses, according to the Utah State Board of Regents.

In response to the university’s dropping enrollment rate, USU Admissions director Katie Nielsen said, “USU recruits based on institutional goals, not based on comparison to other institutions.”

“Our land-grant mission is to provide access to the state of Utah and our recruitment efforts will continue to align with that mission and institutional enrollment goals,” she added.

While additional numbers measuring the effects of these scholarship changes won’t be released for several more months, Cockett said she wants the state of Utah and its leaders to take notice of how she’s running USU underneath a governor who touts increasing state-wide government efficiency by 25 percent.

The state budget director told universities that they have enough tuition money, just to use it more efficiently, Cockett said.

“I’ll tell you what, I’m using it more efficiently,” she said.

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