The University of Maryland University College announced Friday that it would lay off 70 employees — the latest problem to hit the school that caters to nontraditional students, including members of the military, the federal government and working adults.
The layoffs, which began earlier this week, come as declining enrollments have triggered a loss of revenue. They will affect staff "across the board" in departments at the Adelphi and Largo campuses but not faculty members, UMUC spokesman Bob Ludwig said. The university employs about 2,000 in the U.S.
Ludwig said the college is facing a $25 million shortfall in the fiscal year that began last summer. The number of students at the college is expected to decline 6.5 percent in the fall semester.
"This is a painful period for our entire community, especially for those whose jobs have been affected. I deeply regret the personal and professional impact on each of these individuals," UMUC President Javier Miyares wrote Friday in a message to the university community. "Enrollments are down as a result of the mature adult online education market, increased competition, the downsizing of the military, and the impact of the federal budget sequester."
The layoffs come after a tumultuous several years at UMUC. In February 2012, then-President Susan C. Aldridge was placed on indefinite leave and resigned the next month. State auditors announced a year later that UMUC may have overpaid $3.3 million to a marketing contractor and that the university made $415,000 in questionable payments to employees over several years.
University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan said no other colleges in the system have planned significant layoffs.
"University College is a very special circumstance because they are basically totally tuition-dependent," said Kirwan. "They get very little money from the state, so their fortunes rise and fall based on student demand."
Ludwig said that 10 of the 70 staff members being laid off are contract employees who will not have their contracts renewed.
Additionally, 92 adjunct professors had been set to transition soon into full-time faculty positions, but that number has been revised to 20, Ludwig said. Miyares' email indicated that some adjuncts who had already moved into full-time roles might become adjuncts again.
Ludwig said the layoffs will save $8.3 million, and the rest of the budget gap will be made up by eliminating vacant positions and reducing other operating costs.
UMUC offers many of its classes online and in person at its campuses in Adelphi and Largo.
Online colleges nationwide are facing competition from for-profit institutions and free massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Ludwig added that the university was suffering the effects of a nationwide demographic shift.
"Our typical student is 31 years old," he said. "That demographic between 24 to 35 is declining — that's where we feel the impact of that."
The college was once instrumental in driving an overall enrollment rise at the University System of Maryland. System officials said this week that, for the first time since the 1990s, they project that combined enrollment would drop in the next two academic years. They said most of the decline in the coming fall could be attributed to UMUC.
Enrollment at UMUC rose from about 28,000 in 2004 to a peak of nearly 43,000 in 2011. But it dropped to under 39,000 between 2012 and 2013. This fall, enrollment is expected to decline to under 37,000.
Kirwan said UMUC has been hit hard by the downsizing of the military overseas, a significant portion of its student body. He also said many online colleges around the country have suffered from falling enrollments, including the University of Phoenix.
Several other universities around the country are in the midst of layoffs, though some do not cite declining enrollments as a reason. Students and faculty members protested a couple of dozen planned faculty and staff cuts at the University of Southern Maine this week.
In Maryland, Coppin State University had 25 layoffs and contract nonrenewals in 2012.
System officials predict that enrollment will decline again at UMUC by about 500 students in the 2015 academic year before rebounding and hitting more than 44,000 by 2023. Revenue from tuition and fees dropped by $15.8 million in the last six months of 2013 compared to the same period the year before, university system reports show.
Kirwan said that for many years UMUC got no state funding at all.
"The state as a matter of policy treats University College differently than a residential campus," he said. "I think the thinking is that a residential campus needs a lot of infrastructure."
Ludwig, who said the layoffs "are to align our budget for 2015," declined to comment on whether more layoffs are expected.
Ludwig said the university has posted 11 new positions that some of the laid-off employees are being encouraged to apply for. The departments affected include marketing, enrollment management, IT and academic administration; the employees will get three months' severance pay. Not all of the affected employees have been notified yet, but most have, Ludwig said.
University officials said several existing programs and new plans could help the college retain more of its students and encourage more to enroll. They include the special offer of a bachelor's degree for a discounted $20,000 and greater recruitment of military veterans.