Southern fall enrollment suggests end to decline

Southern University saw the number of students on its campus increase this fall for the first time in nearly a decade, ending an enrollment slide that has plagued a university struggling in recent years to balance its budget with less money coming in from both students and the state.

Southern went from 6,611 students enrolled last fall to 6,667 this year.

While the tuition jump wasn’t enough to guarantee that Southern employees will get pay raises, university administrators believe they have identified enough money to give all Baton Rouge campus employees some financial relief this year.

This year’s enrollment increase of 56 students isn’t significant by itself, but Southern administrators took the news as a sign they’ve managed to turn a corner on a campus that has lost 300 to 400 students annually for several years.

Much of the increase is due in part to Southern’s attracting a much larger than usual freshman class: 1,115 students compared with 743 freshmen who enrolled last year.

Chancellor James Llorens said the real challenge will be for Southern to step up its student services to retain the students they have on campus.

“The real truth is to repeat it next year so that’s what we are going to focus on,” Llorens said. “We have to now concentrate on providing the necessary financial resources to our students” to keep them in school.

Even with a jump in enrollment, Southern’s Baton Rouge employees aren’t likely to see the kind of permanent pay raises many of their colleagues got.

Southern’s Board of Supervisors approved pay raises last week for select employees on Southern’s four other campuses.

At the time, Llorens said he would have to reconcile his campus’ final enrollment numbers with his budget before he could recommend any pay raises for Baton Rouge employees.

This week, Llorens said the Baton Rouge campus still isn’t in a good enough situation to raise salaries.

The school got itself into the black this year thanks in part to a special pot of money the Legislature set aside for the Southern System.

“We balanced our budget with one-time dollars, so we have to be cautious with across-the board raises,” Llorens said. “We are much larger than our sister institutions. It’s more difficult for us to do what they did.”

Even with that bit of sobering news, Llorens said Baton Rouge employees likely will each get a one-time $1,000 bonus sometime before the end of the semester.

Southern System President Ronald Mason said the money for those bonuses will come out of $1.2 million he’s identified in the budget that can be used for employee bonuses.

Mason called the pay adjustments necessary as Southern has become vulnerable to losing staff as employees leave in pursuit of more competitive wages.

In an effort to raise student enrollment, Llorens said Southern employed a much more direct student outreach program this year than in the past.

Students admitted to Southern in the spring got personal phone calls from student “ambassadors” and biweekly emails from administrators, reminding them of all the steps they needed to take to get properly set up for this fall’s classes.

“We wanted to make sure our students heard from us regularly,” Llorens said. “We had three orientations; we helped students go through registration, and I think those efforts paid off. Our next focused effort will be on stronger retention.”

Llorens said Southern also will analyze the factors that drove this year’s jump in freshman, including looking at how effective alumni recruiting has been and breaking down where Southern had the most success in attracting out-of-state students.

“If we can be aggressive with our retention and maintain what we saw with our freshmen, we have a chance for very steady growth,” Llorens said.