Knox College President Teresa Amott said the current enrollment at the private liberal arts school in Galesburg is 1,229 students. Dr. Amott said "it would be terrific" if enrollment increased to 1,400-1,600 students. She said that would allow the school to hire more faculty members and offer more academic choices to students.
“It’s a very challenging time for higher education, whether it’s public or private, whether it’s small residential or a large urban commuter school. Almost all of our schools are experiencing some sort of challenge. The Midwest and northeast especially -- the demographic challenge – there just are fewer 18-year olds. And there will be fewer 18-year olds for a long, long time,” Amott said.
“This enrollment issue does create a pretty fierce competition for the students that are out there. And that competition puts a lot of pressure on our revenue.”
Amott said today’s students apply to a multitude of schools and shop around for scholarship offers and financial assistance. She called the current situation in higher education “a buyer’s market” for students.
We talked in Amott’s office on Friday, October 18. Amott said October 18 marked the birthday of Ellen Browning Scripps, who grew up in Rushville, graduated from Knox in 1859, and went on to co-found what was the nation’s largest newspaper chain.
Amott said Ms. Scripps gave Knox $1,000 in 1902, $10,000 in 1908, and $100,000 in 1915, which Amott said were “enormous gifts back in the day.” Amott said the college continues to receive generous support from donors, which is why she is optimistic about the school’s future.
“People will rally to the institution. We’ve been here for a long, long time and we are confident we’re going to be here for a long, long time as well,” Amott said.
She said Knox rings the bells on top of Old Main at noon on Ms. Scripps’ birthday as a reminder of the importance of philanthropy. Amott said Ms. Scripps referred to her donations to Knox and other causes as “Investments in Humanity.”
Other excerpts from our conversation:
TSPR: Is this (the lower enrollment) a result of the two-year state budget impasse?
Amott: “I think that’s part of it. I think just the demographics, just the decline of the number of students period.
“It (the budget impasse) certainly hurt the perception that Illinois was a place you would want to go to college. I remember someone here in Galesburg said to me when we had that two-year budget problem that we were going to lose a generation of college kids. And that proved to be correct. It wasn’t just a one or two year blip.”
Amott said Knox has done some belt tightening, in part by offering faculty and staff retirement incentives.
TSPR: In regards to your belt tightening, you’re examining programs. Have you cut anything?
Amott: “It depends what you mean by ‘cut.’ We certainly have academic programs where there already are fewer faculty now than there were last year. So, for example, if someone is on sabbatical they might not be replaced and so the course offerings have shrunk.
“We have tenured faculty who are fully devoted. They don’t commute. They teach full-time. They live in the region and they interact with our students all the time. So in our environment, any decision to cut an academic program has to be carefully considered because you strand students who are working on their majors. And we are looking at that option. There are programs that we might discontinue that would not necessarily be a major but could be offerings within a major that we would have to discontinue in the coming years if we can’t grow the enrollment back to where we were.”
TSPR asked if Knox was considering whether to add programs to attract students. Amott said the college is exploring whether to add majors in fields such as journalism/communications and data science.
Amott: “The tension, of course, is when you’re cutting you also have to make investments. You can’t cut your way to quality or success. So, trying to figure what is the right balance of cuts to investment in the kinds of majors that will attract students and prepare them for the future.”
TSPR: Can you talk about the financial picture for Knox?
Amott: “I think like a lot of schools, we have a very strong history. We believe we have a very strong future. But there is a rough patch in the middle. It’s in the short run.
“Our endowment has grown steadily. It’s now at almost $160 million, depending on the day. That said, our net assets have grown and grown and grown and grown. That portends long-run stability.
“But, in any given year, if your enrollment falls short you’re going to have a gap. We make that gap up in a variety of ways. Sometimes we make it up with contributions. We have very loyal alumni in particular and other friends of the college. We raise anywhere from $13 million to $15 million a year to fill that gap, to help supplement what we can bring in through tuition revenues.
“I’m very optimistic in the long-run and I’m very proud of the past. We just have to navigate the short-run.”
Amott also outlined what she considered numerous highlights at Knox:
- Students studying abroad
- Students obtaining what she called “great” internships
- Community service performed by students
- The success of the men’s and women’s soccer teams
- The acquisition of the former Second Baptist Church building and its conversion into the HOPE Center
- The major renovations being done to the Science & Mathematics Center
Amott said Knox has not offered any online courses thus far. “Not because we think that they are a bad idea, but because we have invested over the years in a residential experience.”
She added, though, that Knox is looking at that idea and others.