By Abby Spegman / The Olympian
OLYMPIA — Freshman Wasmine Ghosheh said she noticed it in the dorms.
When the 19-year-old from Sonoma County, California, arrived at The Evergreen State College in September, she met students who were supposed to have roommates but ended up with their own rooms.
“There’s a lot of space — it’s spacious, let’s say,” Ghosheh said the Friday before Thanksgiving break in a nearly empty cafeteria on campus.
Evergreen’s enrollment this fall was 2,854 students, down more than 40% from its peak head count a decade ago. The decline, corresponding with an economic recovery and mirroring a trend in liberal arts enrollment nationally, was compounded by campus unrest two and a half years ago that made national headlines.
Since then, the college has tried new ways to attract and retain students and shore up its profile. Officials say they are seeing early signs of progress, but President George Bridges told trustees at a November board meeting the college this year will need a “laser focus” in these areas.
Put plainly, students mean tuition, and less tuition means budget cuts. The college’s net annual revenue has been in the red for five years, according to a June financial overview to trustees. In 2018-19, Evergreen looked to cut 10% from its operating budget. For this year, it cut another 5%.
The college plans its course offerings with a 22-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, so as student numbers have fallen, so too have faculty numbers, said David McAvity, Evergreen’s dean for academic budgets. In just two years, the college has cut the equivalent of 34 full-time faculty positions, a 20% decrease.
Last school year, the college started offering retirement incentives to some tenured faculty. (Evergreen doesn’t use the term “tenured,” however, instead referring to them as faculty with a continuing contract.) This year, incentives are being offered to all tenured faculty who want to leave or reduce their contracts to part time, McAvity said.
At the same time, the college is looking to add faculty in the high demand areas of psychology and computer science.
This summer, the college and its foundation launched a campaign to raise money for scholarships and other programs to bolster the student experience. So far that has raised more than $9.7 million.
This is a new level of fundraising for Evergreen that requires a new level of outreach to alumni and supporters, said Sandra Kaiser, vice president for college relations.
The college also is doing more outreach to lawmakers who control its state funding, trying to make the case for continuing support despite the enrollment trend.
“I don’t have a sense of, ‘If you can’t get it to this number or that number, that’s it, the party is over,’” Kaiser told The Olympian. “But we know we need to perform, we need to deliver and we really want to do it, because we believe in what we do here.”
This year’s student body includes 750 new undergrads, which had been the college’s goal. Kaiser said meeting that is a sign the decline may be slowing.
More good news: There was an uptick in the number of applications from prospective students from outside of Washington, a sign new marketing efforts may be working. Those could have a significant payoff: Out-of-state students pay more than three times the tuition rate for residents.
The bad news: There was a drop in non-resident enrollment this fall, meaning all that interest didn’t translate to more students. Currently about 83% of Evergreen students come from Washington state.
Overall undergraduate retention — that’s students who were enrolled the previous year and came back — was steady this year, but non-resident retention fell to historic lows.
The college is piloting a first-year student success program aimed at increasing retention and student satisfaction. Nearly a third of undergrads on the Olympia campus are first-generation college students, meaning their parents didn’t go to college, and those students are more likely to have trouble navigating the higher education system.
Currently 180 students are learning skills such as how to study, how to stay healthy, and how to find on-campus help with financial aid or registering for classes. Next fall the college plans to offer the course to all first-year students.
Current students say changes on campus as a result of the decade-long decline in enrollment are lost on them.
Ghosheh, the freshman from California, was attracted to Evergreen’s alternative education style. She likes her professor and all the one-on-one attention students here can get.
“I don’t have anything to compare it to,” she said.
With fewer students on campus, it is quiet, said Braden Thompson, a 20-year-old sophomore from Bellevue who lives on campus. But that’s not a bad thing.
“I think the people who live on campus, we’re closer seeing the same faces all the time,” he said. “It feels like a much tighter knit (community) because of that.”
A visit to the 1,000-acre campus was one of the things that sold Evergreen for Zoe Gregorio, 18, a freshman from Omaha, Nebraska.
Gregorio said she has heard about the enrollment decline. But just a few weeks into her college career, she said she wants to stay at Evergreen all four years — as long as it’s still here.
“I love the atmosphere, I love the nature surrounding the campus. It feels like it’s out in the middle of nowhere,” she said.