The University of Kansas faces a series of painful budget cuts because it relied on overly-optimistic revenue growth estimates that counted on a doubling of international student enrollment to offset the multi-million-dollar costs of the huge Central District construction project, a Kansan review of records and interviews with top university officials shows.
In March of 2014, the University decided to aggressively pursue enrollment from international students, hiring an outside contractor to attract more of them to campus, where each would be expected to spend $40,000 to $45,000 annually in tuition and fees. The University’s end goal was to double 2014 fall’s international student count, which was 2,283 students.
But instead of the increase of nearly 2,000 international students forecasted in 2014 by the University and its contractor, Shorelight, the University actually lost 101 international students, as it watched its international enrollment slide to 2,182 by 2017, a drop of about 4 percent, according to internal data.
One reason was President Donald Trump's restrictive travel and immigration policies, which dropped international student enrollment — sometimes dramatically — on college campuses nationwide, according to a 2018 study from the National Foundation for American Policy.
"We’re down about 7 percent nationally, and there’s certainly difficulty in getting visas that has created some challenges," Chancellor Douglas Girod said. "The drop in the Midwest has been about 30 percent."
Compared with such large decreases elsewhere, he said, "We feel pretty fortunate. But we didn’t do anything close to what we were meaning to do a few years ago."
For the University’s budget, though, even the slight drop in international students when a large increase was needed precipitated the current budget crisis, requiring Interim Provost Carl Lejuez to announce emergency cuts of $20 million to KU's current operating budget of $450 million in May. The cuts have forced departments to put off filling empty positions, eliminate others and make sometimes dramatic cuts in areas, including academics. As part of the budget cuts, KU also announced a plan to offer buyouts to older professors who earn higher salaries.
In a series of public meetings this summer and fall, students and faculty have expressed concerns that the cuts will hurt education at the University.
“What we’re concerned about is that as we continue disinvesting into educational services, we are going to experience even less competitive edge to bringing quality educators,” said Lev Comolli, a senior and president of the student group KU Against Rising Tuition in an interview with the Kansan.
But according to Lejuez, there was no other choice. When the doubling of international students didn't pan out, and with debt service up $21 million a year, KU had nowhere to turn to make up that revenue. The University rejected drawing down its budget reserves in favor of making cuts now, a move Girod described in a recent town hall meeting as "taking the bull by the horns."
While few could have predicted the restrictive immigration and visa policies of the Trump administration, in 2015, KU's bet on a big increase in international students prompted one financial analyst to sound the alarm 15 days before the University took out the loan for the Central District from a Wisconsin agency.
On Dec. 7, 2015, Moody’s Investors Service, which rates the credit of big institutions like KU, changed its outlook on the University from "stable" to "negative."
Why? KU had made “optimistic revenue growth targets, partly from a large increase in international enrollment,” Moody's said.
“The future of KU, in my opinion, was fundamentally gambled between 2012 and 2015,” said Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, a professor of aerospace engineering and president of the Kansas chapter of the American Association of University Professors. Barrett-Gonzalez has been one of the most vocal faculty members protesting the cuts.
After a Kansan analysis found the University gambled on an increase in international student enrollment to fund its Central District project, former provost Jeffrey Vitter defended the project.
In February 2017, members of the University Senate Planning and Resources Committee also raised questions about whether international student enrollment projections were too rosy. At that meeting, Vice Provost of Finance Diane Goddard said that only 300 more international students were needed to make payments on the Central District project. Yet at the same meeting, Goddard said she had spoken with the campus deans about anticipated budget cuts, according to meeting minutes.
Goddard and the University’s Office of Public Affairs did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Goddard.
“To be honest, I believe they were expecting a really significant growth in the international student population,” Girod said. “They took a lot initiatives into that area to grow, and it hadn’t worked out as robustly as everyone had hoped.”