Vision for a Sustainable Future Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Vision for a Sustainable Future?
The Vision for a Sustainable Future is a directional focus aimed at making Salem State more student-centered and student-ready than ever before, allowing us to better meet our students’ needs and help them be successful in reaching their professional and personal goals. It outlines the university’s intent to invest in academic growth areas; form a student success collaborative; close student opportunity gaps by 2030; and prepare the university to become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI).
To make these improvements for our current and future students, Salem State will invest in student retention efforts, academic and administrative areas that support revenue growth, and will continue working to reduce compensation costs as well as facility and operating costs.
Built from the work of a campus-wide task force, the Vision is put forth by the President and his executive council and is open for community feedback. A series of meetings will be held to discuss this directional focus with campus members, who can also share their input through a web form.
Why was the Vision needed?
Higher education is facing unprecedented challenges and as the university has done in its long history, we must respond to the changing needs and interests of our students. Demographic trends have resulted in fewer 18-year-olds, especially in the Northeast. Further, student career and academic interests have evolved, as have workforce needs. As the university’s enrollment has declined significantly over time, we need to respond to the changing marketplace. Salem State needs to focus on data informed efforts to ensure we best support the interests and needs of current and future students.
University leadership has a responsibility to serve the students of this region while also being good financial stewards in support of our mission, the students’ investment in their college education, and the people of Massachusetts’ tax dollars. We understand that a college degree is life changing and opens the door of opportunity to many of the region’s students. We owe it to them to provide the programs and support services that will help students earn their degree, prepare them for fulfilling careers, create an enduring network of friends and peers, and connect them to employers and the community.
What financial challenges are being addressed through the Vision?
The traditional revenue framework of tuition and fees, state and federal aid and grants, and the use of endowments is broken for all but the most elite academic institutions. These issues are compounded by the pressures all higher education institutions are facing: diminishing enrollment pools, retention declines, concerns over costs and student debt, increased competition and more online alternatives. Salem State has experienced or is facing all of these same issues. The university has 3,000 fewer students than it did in 2010, largely due to retention challenges, demographic changes, declining community college enrollments resulting in fewer transfer students, and the success of our increased graduation rate resulting in fewer students enrolled.
Salem State is working to close that deficit by increasing efforts to retain and recruit more students, while continuing to save on compensation costs through voluntary personnel reductions and by reducing operational costs. For now, the university is continuing efforts to reduce compensation costs through voluntary departures, such as retirement/separation incentives while strategically investing in some areas. Involuntary personnel reductions and program changes are necessary in future budget years if attrition and enrollment stabilization efforts are not successful in closing the university’s structural deficit.
Who wrote the Vision for a Sustainable Future?
President Keenan and the members of the President’s Executive Council, the university’s leadership team, developed the Vision. This directional focus was informed by lines of inquiry and suggestions from a 34-member Sustainable Path Forward Task Force (SPFTF) that included faculty, staff, administrators, and students. The task force was convened late last year and gathered input from across campus. In addition, the university’s Board of Trustees encouraged Salem State leadership to take action to better meet student demands. Some of the university’s faculty members also voluntarily created a growth plan, which was considered as part of this effort, as well as the general community feedback collected by the SPFTF.
Is Salem State’s academic mission changing?
No. Our investments and realignment of academic and student resources are intended to meet student interest and needs, and in no way diminishes our core values and the liberal arts education we provide. Salem State remains committed to being a comprehensive public university while supporting the focus explicitly identified in our cross-campus developed current strategic plan—science and healthcare on a liberal arts foundation.
The Vision says SSU is preparing to become a Hispanic Serving Institution. What does this mean?
Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) status is a designation by the U.S. Department of Education for institutions at which 25 percent of undergraduate full-time equivalent students identify as Hispanic. Salem State currently serves a 20 percent Latinx student population—and is expected to grow to 25 percent by 2025. Demographic trends in the cities most represented on our campus – Lynn, Salem, and Peabody – indicate that we are likely to serve an even higher Latinx student population in the future. The work of the Vision is to ensure we are ready to meet these students’ needs. As indicated in the Sustainable Path Forward Task Force suggestions, improving the recruitment and retention of Hispanic/Latinx students “will have the residual impact of supporting recruitment/retention of other intersectional groups: first generation, students of color, Pell eligible, etc. Acknowledging and leaning into how well-positioned we could be to support the growing constituency is an imperative to the institutional financial sustainability and will strengthen our value to the region.” To this point, university leaders believe that making the improvements needed to enable our Latinx students to be more successful will, in turn, benefit all Salem State students.
Can you elaborate on why Salem State’s enrollment has declined?
Salem State has not been immune to the challenges facing many colleges and universities, as the higher education industry is truly experiencing a time of historic change. Enrollment has declined by 3,000 students over the past 10 years for a number of reasons:
Regional demographic trends have resulted in fewer 18-year-olds. This trend is expected to get worse in 2026, 18 years after the Great Recession. This population is not expected to increase again in our region until 2030 but even then, it will not return to today’s levels.
In 2010, Salem State welcomed 1,200 transfer students and in 2020, this number dropped to 600. Enrollment at community colleges, especially our feeder schools, has declined to 25-year lows.
Student retention has decreased in the past five years for financial, personal well-being and a sense of belonging, and academic reasons. A new campus-wide coordinated care effort has started to improve retention on our campus, and investing in meeting student support needs even further is a top priority.
The pandemic has also caused international student enrollments to significantly decline and it is unknown when these students will feel comfortable again to study abroad.
Salem State has worked hard during the past several years to help our students complete their degrees. For example, in 2007 we graduated 1,059 undergraduates and in in 2020, 1,546, and our six-year graduation rate has reached 59 percent. Although this success is great news for our students it means that there are fewer of them on campus.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated long-existing enrollment challenges. The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) reports that the Commonwealth’s public higher education system experienced its largest single-year decrease in fall undergraduate enrollment in the last 25 years. For the nine-campus state university system, the decrease was 7.7 percent. Early trends in FAFSA (financial aid) filing and college applications for fall 2021, especially for BIPOC students, are concerning.
How can a public university have a structural deficit?
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts provides a portion of the university’s budget (38% in FY20.) Most of the remaining revenue comes from tuition and fees and auxiliary revenues (housing, dining and similar services.) When student enrollments and related revenues continuously decrease and we do not have a corresponding decrease in faculty and staff compensation (70 percent of the university’s budget), it creates a deficit that is not solved through current state funding policies and amounts.
Is the university receiving federal stimulus funding?
The university did receive federal funds for pandemic relief in the form of CARES funding last year—a portion for students and a portion that reimbursed the university for some of the pandemic-related lost revenue and expenses. The university was also awarded additional pandemic-related response and relief funds (CRRSAA) and is awaiting clarity on the ways in which it may apply those funds to cover remaining lost revenues and pandemic-related expenses. For the student portion of both awards, the university’s role is to pass-through those funds to students. Future one-time pandemic response and recovery funding programs are in discussion at the federal level and not yet passed by Congress or signed into law. Through the Vision direction, Salem State is working to solve a structural deficit caused by 10 years of declining enrollment. Pandemic relief funds are not a long-term or a recurring source of operational funding support.
How will the Vision strengthen academic programs?
As the university plans to make new investments in academic programming, prioritization must take into account several factors, including the availability of funds, the outcome of the impending comprehensive review by NECHE (the university’s accrediting body), and the priorities explicitly identified in the community-developed current strategic plan (i.e., science and healthcare on a liberal arts foundation). Salem State must also consider areas of student interest and the projected needs of the regional workforce with a focus on stabilizing our enrollment. These investments include faculty positions in academic areas identified for growth as capacity and demands require, while continuing to offer students a broad portfolio of liberal arts and science degree options. At this time, the areas identified for growth are:
Athletic training (sport and movement science)
Many of our current Latinx students are already enrolled in these programs and the demand for these majors is expected to grow. The university is committed to hiring faculty whose scholarly expertise and lived experience speak directly to the histories, cultures, and contributions (past and future) of communities of color.
Will the Vision affect current students or only future students?
The Vision for a Sustainable Future is intended to bring a streamlined and more supportive experience for current and future students through our Viking Success Collaborative. The Vision prioritizes the need to become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), as Latinx students are a growing campus population. HSI status will not only help Salem State better serve Latinx students, but it will provide additional support for all students.
We plan to invest in new faculty members in areas of high student interest and demand. While we are asking academic departments with low enrollment to seek opportunities to invigorate their offerings in the future, it is important to note that this process will look at the future of these majors and will not affect the degree requirements of current students who have declared majors in these areas.
The Vision is a win for Salem State students, and the university has recently shown how we are supporting them in new ways. In January, the university announced that it is freezing all undergraduate fees for the FY22 academic year (an equal proposal is before the Board of Trustees for graduate students). In addition, Salem State University alumna Kim Gassett-Schiller ’83, ’18H and her husband, Apple Fellow Philip Schiller, recently contributed $6 million to the university. Of their gift, $5 million establishes the Viking Completion Grant Endowment. Wishing to assist undergraduate seniors in overcoming their final financial hurdle before graduation, the Schillers’ philanthropy will provide another resource to help students achieve their degree. The $1 million balance from the gift fuels additional student resources, such as the Center for Academic Excellence and the Harold E. and Marilyn J. Gassett Fitness and Recreation Center, as well as flexible dollars that can be deployed to address emerging university priorities focusing on student support and success.
Does the Vision change requirements for my selected major?
No. Any actions that would consolidate academic programs would go through the university’s shared governance process. The potential for future changes to under-enrolled academic departments does not change degree requirements for current and incoming students who have declared majors. Any changes to academic programs will take time and follow a collaborative process that includes the faculty, the department chairpersons, the university’s shared governance committees, the deans and the provost. Any actions that would consolidate academic programs would go through the university’s shared governance process. The potential for future changes to under-enrolled academic departments does not change degree requirements for current and incoming students who have declared majors.
How will Salem State be realigning or merging those academic programs with smaller enrollments?
The university’s provost will be working with our colleges, schools and departments to invigorate under-enrolled programs to make them more appealing to today’s student interests and needs. This process will look at the future of these majors and will not affect the degree requirements of current students who have declared majors in these areas.
Realignments may be considered for academic programs with relatively smaller enrollments and graduates, where there are disciplinary affinities. The capacity to make strategic investments for a realigned academic portfolio will require the university’s academic community to make important – and difficult – decisions about reallocating available resources toward those departments that offer programs most clearly aligned with student interest and workforce demand. Any such changes must be done through the university’s shared governance process.
What does the Vision report mean when it discusses a permanent remote strategy?
The Salem State community looks forward to offering more in-seat classes and in-person student activities and services this fall, if it is safe to do so. The university will soon be releasing an announcement about the fall semester to students and their families that highlights the planned fall experience.
However, the successful response from students to have the ability to virtually connect with campus departments during the pandemic has been great. This experience led university leaders to further explore these benefits for our students while considering opportunities for cost efficiencies if some non-student facing departments shift to primarily remote operations. A review and policy development are underway and being led by human resources and equal opportunity, inclusive excellence, facilities, information technology services, and departments that may be affected. There are a variety of service and policy matters to explore, and there will be discussions with the applicable university unions. As we emerge from the pandemic, the university looks forward to adjusting this work modality in a thoughtful, deliberate way rather than as an emergency response to the pandemic.
Where do I send feedback on the Vision for a Sustainable Future?