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The number of students attending Bethel University has been getting smaller in recent years, and now the faculty and administration will, too.

Bethel, a private Christian school in Arden Hills, plans to cut as many as 30 staff members and 30 faculty members as the school tackles a projected $11 million budget shortfall over the next three years. Some buildings on campus and a child development center will shut down. Academic programs with low enrollment will be phased out as the university trims about 10% of its operating budget to respond to declining enrollment, President Jay Barnes said.

“We have to deliberately resize Bethel for our future so we can preserve our core,” Barnes said. “Bethel is not going to be the same size as it was at its high-water mark so let’s staff at a realistic level.”

Cuts to Bethel staff are expected to be officially announced in January; faculty reductions will be announced in April. Affected faculty members will remain employed until the end of the 2020-21 school year, and Bethel will allow students studying in disciplines affected by curriculum changes to finish those degrees.

Over the past decade, first-time undergraduate enrollment in the United States has fallen by 10%, according to National Student Clearinghouse data referenced in a statement on Bethel’s website. That slide is expected to continue as birthrates fell following the 2008 recession, meaning there will be fewer college-age students in the next decade.

Bethel is not alone in grappling with demographic and cost challenges. Enrollment at Minnesota’s private colleges remained stable in the fall of 2019, down just 0.5% from a year ago, said Paul Cerkvenik, president of the Minnesota Private College Council, but changes like those at Bethel will continue to happen as schools adjust as students’ needs change.

“Private nonprofit colleges will continue to evolve and change, as they continue to meet the needs of tomorrow’s students and continue to contribute to the vitality of our state,” he said.

Barnes, who is retiring in June 2020, said Bethel had been bracing for the challenges that will be brought on by the “birth dearth” that is expected to affect enrollment in the years to come.

Bethel, which draws 95% of its students from the Midwest, has already seen its enrollment fall from 4,860 four years ago to 4,387 this school year, including undergraduate, graduate and seminary students.

Bethel has no plans to cut any athletic programs, Barnes said, even as St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota, Crookston this week announced plans to drop football. As a Division III school, Bethel does not award athletic scholarships and the sports programs are “net revenue producers that complement our academic mission,” Barnes said.

Barnes said Bethel is looking at ways to attract students by keeping the school affordable. The cost this year of tuition, room and board for full-time students is $49,200. The school awards $40 million in aid each year, and the average student receives $26,000 in financial aid from the school or through grants and loans, Barnes said.

“That’s still a big number,” he said.

In a proactive move to stem the enrollment slide, the regional liberal arts university in recent years has added a variety of high-demand programs, including a bachelor’s degree in special education, four undergraduate engineering majors and a doctor of nursing practice degree in an effort to attract students. It’s building a new science center and recently renovated buildings to add new physics and engineering labs and new facilities for its business program.

“There is a lot of growth going on, but growth is not equally distributed,” Barnes said. “We are not going away. We are trying to make the cuts that give us a good future.”

Tim Harlow • 612-673-7768