Higher education is at a crossroads in this country with colleges and universities having to balance the changing needs and interests of students with financial challenges unlike any they have seen before. Conversations of realignment, restructuring and recalibrating programmatic offerings and operations are taking place on campuses across the country; all with the ultimate goal of serving students in the best ways possible while also achieving fiscal stability.
Salem State University (SSU) is not immune to this revisioning, and the demographic changes ahead compound our challenges, with fewer 18-year-olds in the region and significant declines in community college enrollments. However, from the work of the Sustainable Path Forward Task Force and open campus feedback, university leadership puts forth a new vision for the university with a laser focus on student success, investment, realignment, and growth so that SSU may thrive as a place of opportunity for generations to come.
The Vision for a Sustainable Future sets the direction for SSU to be a welcoming campus that is truly student-centered and student-ready, allowing us to better meet our students’ needs and help them be successful in reaching their professional and personal goals. The Vision primarily intends to invest in academic areas and administrative functions that support growth; to invest in a student success collaborative; close opportunity gaps by 2030; prepare the university to become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI); and achieve fiscal vitality. This work will require investment in areas of opportunity and significant savings gained through the realignment of our resources and reductions so that we may correct our structural deficit and establish a sustainable path for the future. It is challenging work but work we must do together.
The primary purpose of the Vision for a Sustainable Future is to provide students with the resources they need to succeed and to realign our academic offerings, support services and operations with the interests of current and future students in mind. We must stabilize enrollment through recruitment and retention and continue prudent management of compensation costs to address the university’s structural deficit. Key strategies within the Vision related to student success and academic programming are highlighted below.
Investment in, and Realignment of, Academic Programs
SSU will invest in 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 include athletic training (sport and movement science), biology, business, computer science, criminal justice, education, healthcare studies, nursing, psychology, and social work.
Additionally, 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. These discussions will center around enrollment data and allow faculty and administrators to explore cross-department collaborations, as well as possible consolidations that result in renewed majors intended to draw greater student interest. Any such changes must be done through the university’s shared governance process.
At the same time, SSU must look at program delivery models and experiential learning opportunities that will ensure our students have a well-rounded educational journey that meets their needs and allows them to balance multiple responsibilities. With the pivot to a largely online learning environment since the onset of the pandemic, we have learned a great deal about what works and what doesn’t in a virtual classroom. We now have the advantage to take all that was learned and move forward with more flexible options that allow faculty and students a variety of ways to engage in teaching and learning that strikes a better balance than the mostly in-person modality of the past and the mostly online format of today.
Reverse Enrollment Decline
With the population of prospective students decreasing steadily in the northeast, SSU faces fierce competition for students and must pursue strategies that both generate new enrollments and retain students. Retention must be our top priority. The most effective way to address our enrollment challenges is to become a student-ready institution offers supports and resources that enable students to easily navigate their educational journey, have positive and meaningful experiences, and ultimately, graduate. Retention will be key to stabilizing enrollment, and all on campus have the responsibility to support our students through their graduation.
Viking Success Collaborative
The Vision outlines the new Viking Success Collaborative, which will streamline operations among all student service offices on campus with a focus on providing students the resources and supports they need to achieve their goals. The creation of this collaborative will include clarifying staff and office responsibilities, reducing duplication of work between offices, refining the university’s coaching model, and exploring opportunities to build on technology and automation in student service areas. The Viking Success Collaborative was created with SSU’s Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) student population in mind, as the university believes that centralizing student support functions will eliminate systematic and sometimes invisible barriers that impact these students most. Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Sean Bennett will oversee the creation of the collaborative, guiding the work of campus leaders from academic affairs, admissions, advising, enrollment management, inclusive excellence, and student life.
Erasing Opportunity Gaps by 2030 and Preparing to become a Hispanic Serving Institution
Salem State seeks to join several higher education partners in the region to work with educational consulting firm EAB on the Moon Shot for Equity initiative. The goal of this program is to erase opportunity gaps in higher education by 2030 through the implementation of 15 best practices that remove systemic barriers across the areas of leadership; access and enrollment; academic policy and practice; and student support and belongingness.
At the same time, the university must take steps to better understand what it means to become a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI). This work is grounded in our commitment to the current student population and the demographic trends of the North Shore region. In determining what practices and policies will make the university HSI-ready, Salem State will center our preparation as an HSI in the voices and experiences of our existing Latinx students, their families, communities, and local organizations. SSU must be better prepared to attract, educate and support these students throughout their educational journey, and efforts taken to do so will benefit the entire student body.
Ensuring Our Long-term Financial Health
SSU’s structural deficit is due to personnel reductions not keeping pace with declining enrollment, resulting in an oversized number of employees today from a time when we were a much larger institution. We are no longer one of the largest state universities in Massachusetts with 10,000 students. Our enrollments have declined by 3,000 students since 2010, because of retention challenges, changing demographics, fewer transfer students due to declining community college enrollments, and the success of the university’s increasing graduation rate. With personnel costs comprising 70 percent of our expenses, this imbalance causes the deficit.
SSU has successfully reduced overall compensation costs over the past few years through a hiring freeze, eliminating vacant positions, and a voluntary separation incentive. We must continue our disciplined position management strategies and seek to achieve savings primarily through retirements, abolishing unneeded vacant positions, realignment of work and offerings, and attrition. While involuntary personnel reductions have been given serious consideration, it is not the right action to take at this time.
There are far too many significant unknowns that could benefit our financial position. Additional federal pandemic relief funding, state appropriations, the funding of SSU BOLD, savings from voluntary departures with the recently-announced retirement/separation incentive, and the impact of widespread COVID-19 vaccinations on our enrollment and housing occupancy, could positively impact our budget. These unknowns make it extraordinarily challenging to predict our future financial position at this time, and to take actions relative to involuntary personnel reductions now would be premature. While the next several fiscal years present significant uncertainty, and likely deficits, we will defer on further action until these unknowns become apparent. Successful implementation of the Vision combined with the positive impacts from the above items will allow SSU to continue meeting student needs while acting with more precision when additional data is available.
As a result of additional federal funding, level state appropriation and savings from the campus-wide furlough program, we are in a financial position much stronger than expected when the pandemic first began, with a near $15 million managed net income projected for FY21. We commit these funds to investments in our future. Our prudent fiscal management this past year was difficult but allows us more time to realign our university and enhance our recruitment and retention practices to stabilize enrollment. The investments we make now must be strategic, data driven and focused on realigning our resources on what our students want and require to succeed.
Our financial challenges can be greatly improved by stabilizing enrollment. We can stabilize, and possibly grow, our enrollment by making intentional investments in academic areas of growth and realignment of our programs. We must be prepared to compete in the marketplace. These investments will meet the needs and interests of our students, as demonstrated by their choice of major and where there is a workforce need, while continuing to offer strong liberal arts programming.
We seek to work together to realign our campus to address these unprecedented financial challenges during a global pandemic. Our campus community has already shown its resilience as we came together to put our students first, kept the community safe, and delivered the high-quality, engaging education and experiences upon which our students rely. These are indeed difficult times, but we will prevail and better serve our students and the generations to come. Key strategies within the Vision related to administrative efficiencies are highlighted below.
Disciplined Management of Compensation Costs
SSU will continue its disciplined position management strategies and seek to achieve savings primarily through retirements, abolishing unneeded vacant positions, realignment of work and offerings, and attrition. While involuntary personnel reductions were given serious consideration, the university will not institute any at this time. Earlier this month, SSU announced an early retirement/separation incentive program that builds on efforts in recent years to find as much vacancy savings through voluntary means as possible. The current retirement incentive allows those with 20 years or more of state university service to receive a lump sum payment of $25,000.
Addressing Infrastructure Needs
Campus infrastructure is another area in which the university will make both investments and reductions. Investments must be made strategically to provide the quality academic environments our students need to succeed and the university needs to be competitive. Reducing our footprint more than originally anticipated may be possible due to remote work opportunities that became apparent during the pandemic. Virtual office technology allows many in our community to perform the majority of their work from their own homes. Post-COVID-19, the university will evaluate how it operates going forward and which functions do not need to return to campus in the same way they did previously. Several actions will be explored to optimize space and minimize leasing, utility and maintenance costs.
Additionally, the Vision for a Sustainable Future ties in with Salem State’s existing application with the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance to help fund SSU BOLD: A Campus Unification and Modernization Project (SSU BOLD). This project will support areas of student interest and regional workforce need by providing much-needed new life science wet labs, nursing SIM and occupational therapy labs, and general-purpose teaching and learning spaces with updated technologies for today’s student. This project is designed to enhance the overall campus experience for all students through these modernized learning environments and by consolidating the university’s footprint with the sale of South Campus. SSU BOLD brings our community physically together while also reducing transportation, utilities and maintenance expenses and eliminating $80.4 million in deferred maintenance for all buildings on South Campus and $11 million in immediate rehabilitation costs for outdated facilities there.
Investing in Additional Revenue Generating Areas
The university will invest in revenue generating areas, including admissions, marketing, and institutional advancement. We must continue to look at new ways to connect with prospective students and donors given all that we have learned during the pandemic. Additional resources in these areas will allow SSU to attract students through wider, yet more targeted audiences while bringing in greater investment in their educational journeys through increased donor engagement.