Low enrollment trends strain campus departments

Over the past few years, St. Cloud State has seen a significant drop in enrollment. This drop has forced major budget cuts in many departments across the campus. Campus Recreation is one department feeling the repercussions of low enrollment and struggling to maintain the standard of service it would like to offer students.

Ron Seibring, director of Sports Facilities and Campus Recreation, has worked in the department for 30 years and has never experienced a budget crisis as steep as this one.

“This is the deepest [budget challenge] we’ve faced,” Seibring said. “We’ve had budget challenges before, but this is our toughest place in my 30 years, and that’s a long time.”

Campus Recreation is one of a number of departments on campus that receives its funding from student activity fees, an additional fee students pay per credit. The current student activity fee is $9.78 per credit, up to 12 credits. Fewer students means less money for the departments that depend on those fees.

One example of how low enrollment directly affects Campus Recreation is the Fitness Center. Fewer students using the center means fewer fees–a significant portion of revenue for the department.

According to Waqas Muzammil, chair of the Fee Allocation Committee, a branch of Student Government responsible for deciding how to divide up activity fees, enrollment has dropped 20 percent in the last five years, which has had a major impact on activity fees.

“Last year, the total deficit in student fees was $600,000,” Muzammil said. Campus departments rely on those dwindling activity fees.

“That is our operating budget,” Seibring said. As that budget decreases and revenue drops, Seibring said the department has had to get creative with how to find other ways in supporting the department.

“We supplement that, and have been very fortunate to be able to do this with the community rental of our spaces,” Seibring said. “For example, local high schools, like Tech, will rent Husky stadium for a soccer game. Without this, we would really be in trouble. This year, $220,000 in exterior student staffing is coming from the rental of our sports facilities.”

While a great option for generating revenue, Seibring admits that it is a challenge to find a balance between renting out spaces to generate revenue and leaving those spaces available to students.

“It’s okay to make our sports facilities available for rent, but it’s a balance,” Seibring said. “We need to balance student access and student need with generating revenue from renting out sports facilities.”

He added that in his 30 years at Campus Recreation, he’s always been able to comfortably maintain that balance, but recently this feat has become harder than ever.

“I’ll be honest, because of our need for revenue right now, I’m very concerned that we’re compromising our student access too much,” Seibring said. “First and foremost, I want to be the Campus Recreation director that offers the best campus recreation opportunities available to our students. The reality is, that’s getting harder to do because of economic issues.”

Having to lease out athletic space isn’t the only sacrifice the department has had to make. They no longer have a building manager on site when the department opens in the morning, can no longer staff for early morning swim and have gone from having six graduate assistants in 2004 to none today.

Other big changes in staffing budget was the decision by the Fee Allocation Committee to discontinue funding the salary of Ivan Bartha, coordinator of Experiential Education and Outdoor Programming, as well as three-quarters of the salary of Brian Johnson, business operations manager at Campus Recreation. These salaries, Seibring explained, will still be funded, but by SCSU’s general budget, not activity fees.

In order to avoid staffing cuts and other budget issues, Seibring suggests raising the activity fee cap, which is fixed by MnSCU, to take some pressure off the departments and to cut down on extra Campus Recreation fees for students.

“It would open up a lot of opportunities,” Seibring said, explaining that a higher activity fee could significantly lessen certain fees for students, like the fitness center fee.

“The problem right now is that there’s a cap on what the student activity fee can be,” he added. “We are at that cap.”

Muzammil is familiar with the frustrations of having a cap on activity fees and was a part of an effort to raise it.

“We actually tried it,” Muzammil said. “We tried to get the ceiling raised for the students so we could function easier.”

He explained how fighting to change the cap was a complicated, bureaucratic process that in the end didn’t succeed. Muzammil also explained why the Fee Allocation Committee decided to focus budget cuts on salaries rather than a department’s general operating budget.

“If you cut all the non-salary dollars, then the only thing we would be able to fund is the salaries of the FTE’s (full-time employees),” Muzammil said. “Then the departments wouldn’t have any money to do events for the students. We thought, what’s the point of paying the salaries if they have no operating budget. We decided to prioritize the events.”

This decision has not come without consequences.

“Yes,” Muzammil immediately responded, when asked if the committee has received backlash for cutting salaries. “But most of the departments do understand, and we keep them in the loop on what’s going to happen.”

Seibring is one of the department heads that understands the bind the Fee Allocation Committee is in, and despite all the challenges low enrollment has created for his department, remains optimistic about how far Campus Recreation has come, and where it’s going.

“Since I started 30 years ago, we’ve added Outdoor Endeavors, the climbing wall, the fitness center, and other great programs,” Seibring said. “As long as I’m the director, we’re going to continue to grow the activities our students want.”

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