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Bradley University looks to finalize cost-cutting decisions by end of the year

Bradley University will move relatively quickly to cut costs by 10% amid declining undergraduate enrollment and a bleakening outlook for higher education at large.

Bradley University president Stephen Standifird announced earlier this month that the institution ran a $13 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2023, or about 10% of the university's overall operating budget.

In a recent interview with WCBU, he said Bradley is moving rapidly by higher education standards to right-size costs.

"We're being thoughtful and expeditious and we will have made the decisions we need to make by the end of this calendar year, so that we can let people understand where we're headed as an organization," he said.

Standifird said the incoming class of first-year students will be around 870 this year. That's down significantly from the 1,037 who enrolled in fall 2022.

The president said while he's optimistic headcount will rebound next year, he acknowledges higher education in general has an overcapacity problem. The tough competition for a tightening pool of students can erode financial stability, he said.

"At any one time right now, there's about 25% of the seats in higher education are empty. And what's happening is as a result, universities are increasingly competing on price. And the way they do that is through tuition discount," he said. "And we've experienced that just like everybody else. And that's really what's turning upside down the finances of higher education throughout the country."

Standifird said on average, Midwestern private schools are discounting tuition rates by 64%. He said Bradley may fare slightly better when numbers are finalized, but will likely fall within that range.

The president said a large part of the restructuring process is determining what programs in the university's academic portfolio are catering to current student needs and wants, and what's not.

"Obviously, this creates a certain amount of tension on campus. Of course it does. And one of the things we're being very thoughtful about is, first of all, we're bringing our colleagues into that conversation," he said.

A faculty committee will make recommendations to university administration on changes, he said.

He said that though final decisions will be made by the end of 2023, eliminated programs may phase out over a longer period of time to allow current students to complete their degrees.

Standifird said the university's graduate program offers some cause for optimism. He anticipates a substantial increase in the number of graduate students enrolled at Bradley this year.

"There's a good market there. That's a market that continues to grow. We are all in higher education feeling pressure at the traditional undergraduate enrollment position, but graduate programs continue to grow, and I will say that we also have a nice set of very attractive graduate programs," he said.

Standifird said despite the current challenges, he's still bullish on the university's overall outlook.

"Our balance sheet is strong, and we still have an opportunity to make investments. And so we're making the financial adjustments that we need to make. And that's very important to get us on a successful path," he said.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.