Enrollment Forecasting: Are You Sure About That?

May 27, 2021 / PSU-AAUP

Shrinking budgets are facts of life at PSU: we can’t live with them; we can’t live without them. They are, of course, closely linked to student enrollment trends, so responsible budgeting at PSU (as elsewhere) fundamentally rests on the ever-evolving science and art of enrollment forecasting. There is a lot that goes on behind the curtain, but to its credit, the Office of Institutional Research and Planning (OIRP) has been forthcoming with a great deal of information about the data and methodology used to generate its 5-year enrollment forecasts. While we do not want to dispute the expertise and hard work that goes into this forecasting, we do question the confidence with which these estimates subsequently feed the budget modeling by Finance and Administration (FADM). After all, Administration is now presenting us with some very stark choices. Whether in the form of an Article 22 take-down (IELP) or the siren song of ReImagine PSU, jobs are on the line.
The budget scenarios FADM presented to the Board of Trustees, the Faculty Senate, and to the PSU community in its budget town halls are built on top of OIRP’s enrollment forecasts from AY 2021-2022 through AY 2025-2026. There are two questionable things to notice about that forecasted enrollment trendline. First, it is not accompanied by any forecast error bands – you know, those shaded zones that typically fan out with longer forecast horizons, indicating greater degrees of uncertainty about estimates further into the future. We don’t have a problem with uncertainty in forecasts -- it comes with the territory -- but we do have a problem with Administration’s failure to acknowledge the uncertainty. Jon Boeckenstadt, the Vice Provost for enrollment management down the road at OSU, writes in the Chronicle that enrollment managers are flying blind: “what’s changed is almost everything we try to use to predict what fall will look like…. Everything looks like it should, but there is a sense that something is just not right.” If that’s true for Fall 2021, what about Fall 2022, or Fall 2025? Again, jobs are on the line.
The second questionable thing is what the model seems to anticipate about the enrollment effects of the pandemic – or, to be more precise, what it does not anticipate: a post-pandemic rebound. There is clearly a downward trend in actual enrollment from 2013 to 2019 and, as we all know, enrollment has turned more sharply downward during the past two academic years, impacted by public health concerns and the move to remote instruction. OIRP also predicts lower enrollment during the upcoming academic year, not unreasonably, given the likely lingering effects of the pandemic, at least during the summer and fall. But from AY 2022-23 through the end of its 5-year forecast, there’s not an inkling of a post-pandemic enrollment rebound, but rather an acceleration of the pre-pandemic downward enrollment trend. What happened to those folks who temporarily delayed or stepped away from their college education? Do we really think they have evaporated forever from the enrollment pipeline? What OIRP forecasts as a permanent downward shift in enrollment trends looks very different if treated as a temporary shock induced by the pandemic. Data are good; sophisticated statistical models are essential. But our confidence in forecasts should be tempered by disruptions brought on by anomalous events…. like pandemics. Those forecasts are informing the budget, and the budget is putting jobs on the line.
By the way, in February the enrollment model forecasted a 7.7% drop in enrollment for AY 2021-22 compared to this year.*  The March revision showed only a 5.3% drop. As of this week, Fall 2021 enrollment is on track to come up short of last fall by less than 2%. Do the math.



*Sentence correction to previously sent newsletter.

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