President Rita Cheng hosted the annual Fall Campus Forum Tuesday afternoon in the High Country Conference Center. The event celebrated the 120th year of NAU's existence, specifically referencing the university's influence on alumni, current students and the overarching community.
Cheng said NAU has maintained a consistent focus on its undergraduate students, despite the evolving environment within higher education. When she first came to the university, demographic models forecasted double digit enrollment growth, which Cheng clarified as unrealistic and unsustainable for NAU looking forward.
"[This change is] driven by factors such as fewer college-aged people, low college-going rates in Arizona, a booming job market and overall questions about the value of education nationally," Cheng said.
Around the country, universities are searching for methods to combat enrollment decline. Cheng said solutions to this problem include reducing costs, awarding more financial aid, restructuring curriculum and offering new majors. NAU is committed to developing a long-term plan utilizing these ideas and separate studies.
"Because trends indicate that undergraduate numbers nationwide are likely to continue decreasing in the next 10 to 12 years, our work in FY '19 focused on the development of a strategic enrollment management plan," Cheng said.
The first stage of NAU's strategic plan emphasizes student success, Cheng said. Various studies regarding demographics, pricing and market opportunities have contributed statistical analysis toward this initial step, and they have revealed an improvement in retention rates and graduate student enrollment.
Cheng said retention rates have increased by approximately 4% since fall 2018 – from 73.5% to 77.6%. Additionally, graduate student enrollment has raised 5.7%, or more than 225 students throughout NAU's Flagstaff mountain campus, online programs and statewide locations.
In order to adapt to changes in enrollment and higher education, NAU has also refined its advertising campaign. Cheng explained that because the university has an extensive online market and various locations, a strong commercial base is crucial to maintain.
"The refreshed brand campaign is the result of our research-based marketing plan that focuses on NAU's strengths," Cheng said. "The campaign extends to our statewide campuses and online, stressing that an NAU education can be accessed however, wherever and whenever it is convenient and relevant to the individual student."
NAU's online presence helps non-traditional students, including those who are spread throughout Arizona, have separate careers and are looking to take classes part-time, Cheng said. The university is also ahead of many other institutions because it has offered online education for over 20 years – comprising 21% of NAU graduates. Furthermore, NAU is the first public university in Arizona to provide a competency-based online program.
To continue enhancing student success, NAU is seeking multiple budget allocations from the Arizona Board of Regents. During Tuesday's forum, Cheng explained how one budget proposal, targeted for $22 million, is designed to expand investments in behavioral health programs, advance pathways in expedited degree programs and invest in cybersecurity programs.
A separate proposal, which is aimed at $10 million, is arranged to further NAU's mission as an important educational institution for students — in a variety of locations. Together, these proposals have the potential to raise $32 million in additional budgets for the university.
As NAU continues to prepare for the future, sustainability is also a notable feature to consider. NAU has developed over 1 million square feet of sustainability-designed projects, Cheng said Tuesday evening. More specifically, these endeavors have generated 3,500 megawatts of solar energy, purchased 50,000 megawatts of Green Power and reduced potable water consumption by approximately 400 million gallons.
Cheng also mentioned the Climate 2020 summit that NAU is hosting in November. As outlined in a previous article by The Lumberjack, the public forum will allow leaders, youth and researchers from around Arizona to collaborate on topics such as sustainability and climate change.
Additionally, NAU is working with third-party partners to contribute ideas and develop plans regarding the allocation of space on campus. Rather than expanding outward, Cheng explained how methodically using current infrastructure is paramount to achieving long-term sustainability.
"As always, we're looking for ways to enhance and maximize our use of space throughout our mountain campus," Cheng said. "Currently, we're working with an international, interdisciplinary planning and size firm on a strategic space and location plan. This will allow us to use the space we have efficiently and create mid-term and long-term master plan goals."
NAU has unparalleled distinctiveness within the local community, Cheng said. The work and influence of the university does not end at campus' boundaries because it continues throughout Flagstaff and the state.
Ultimately, Cheng explained that as a widespread community, the university is well-positioned to adapt and excel in the future.