Takeaways from the 2024 State of the University

February 14, 2024

Why is it so tricky to put together the university’s annual budget? How are some of our new enrollment and retention efforts going so far? This year’s SOTU event featured some candid insights on these and other topics — plus a surprise appearance by the college football national championship trophy.

CASL Associate Dean and Professor of Psychology Marie Waung, Director of Undergraduate Enrollment Management Urana Pridemore and Director of Enrollment Management Communication and Events Kevin Lewtschanyn discuss new recruitment and retention strategies during the State of University Event, Feburary 8, 2024.
From left, CASL Associate Dean Marie Waung, Director of Undergraduate Enrollment Management Urana Pridemore and Director of Enrollment Management Communication and Events Kevin Lewtschanyn discuss new recruitment and retention strategies.

Sports fans — if you did not attend last week’s State of the University event, you missed out! Not to take anything away from the presentations from faculty, staff and students, but the surprise appearance by the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy definitely stole part of the show. Hundreds of members of the UM-Dearborn community scored a photo op, celebrating the first national championship by the Wolverines since 1997. Alas, the trophy is now back home in Ann Arbor, so you’ve missed your chance for a social media brag post. But below, we’ve recreated many of the other highlights from the SOTU, which included remarks from the chancellor, a primer on how the university puts together its budget, updates on new retention and recruitment strategies, and a look at practice-based learning in all four colleges. If you want the full SOTU experience, you can also watch the entire event on the university’s YouTube channel.

Grasso says the university has talent and “horsepower” needed for challenging times

Chancellor Domenico Grasso kicked off the event with a brief address calling out some of the university’s major accomplishments from the past year — as well as its biggest challenges. Among the 2023 highlights: UM-Dearborn passed its accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission “with flying colors,” meeting or exceeding all criteria without the need for additional steps. Buoyed by a new state scholarship, the university welcomed its biggest class ever of first-year students. Annual total research expenditures grew by nearly $2.5 million this year compared to the previous year. The university kicked off a new capital campaign that’s already secured three seven-figure gifts, including a $1 million gift from alum Marc Howze and his wife, Paula, part of which is supporting a new “Get to Graduation” fund. And the university ranks in the top 30 nationwide among universities for upward economic mobility. Grasso also announced that Director of Human Resources Rima Berry-Hung, Director of the Center for Social Justice and Inclusion Shareia Carter and CASL Associate Dean Marie Waung will be leading an effort to re-envision the university’s DEI efforts. The Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is also being renamed the Office of Holistic Excellence.

On the challenges side, Grasso said enrollment and retention still unsurprisingly dominate the conversation. Overall enrollment was down about 2% this year. “Our enrollment decline is [partly] due to students not returning to campus, which is worrisome. They either transfer or drop out for family or financial reasons,” Grasso said. “Last year, we lost 400 students, which first and foremost, is a loss of human potential, but also it is a loss of over $6 million of revenue.”

Chancellor Domenico Grasso stands behind a podium addressing a crowd
Chancellor Domenico Grasso addresses the crowd at the 2024 State of the University event. 

Why it’s so tricky to put together the university budget

If the university ever gives out an unsung hero award, many might nominate Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs Bryan Dadey after watching his 10-minute primer on how the university budget comes together. The university’s chief financial officer and his team have their hands full creating a balance between revenues and expenses — primarily because there’s so little certainty on either side of the ledger for much of the year. There are all kinds of quirks in the process. For example, the state finalizes its budget after the Board of Regents has already approved the UM-Dearborn budget for the year, meaning Dadey and the team have to estimate the size of the state appropriation, which makes up about 21% of the university’s total revenue. Total enrollment numbers — and thus tuition dollars, which account for 78% of revenue — are also a moving target until the fall semester kicks off. So how does the budget ever come together? Basically, Dadey said he and his team keep making adjustments through the year based on the best information they have at the time. But almost anything can change at any moment. For example, Dadey said they were expecting a 10% jump in health insurance costs this year. But the increase ended up being 14%, which prompted a further round of adjustments. 

New recruitment and retention efforts show promise

Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Melissa Stone and her team discussed a number of recently debuted strategies focused on recruitment and retention. For example, the university is trying out a new look for dual enrollment for Detroit students, with college courses taught on Saturdays. Similar programs just launched for students in Ferndale and Grosse Ile as well. The EM team is also looking to new online offerings as a way to attract transfer students and the 25% of Michigan adults who have some college experience but no degree — two demographics with strong appetites for online programs. There’s also evidence that key changes to our financial aid strategy are paying off. Stone said the Go Blue Guarantee, a free tuition program for lower-income, high-achieving students which launched in 2021, and the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, a new state program that kicked in in 2023, have boosted enrollment among first-time students. “Of our Pell-eligible population, in Fall 2023, we actually welcomed 472 (students) versus 239 before launching Go Blue,” Stone said. “So I know we’re doing all we can to make sure the incoming Fall ’24 class stays engaged in the college process … because we know how affordable it can be if they take advantage of the programs.” To that end, Stone said the team is working hard to make sure prospective students don’t get discouraged by delays in receiving their financial aid offers this year, which was triggered by the first major changes to the FAFSA program in 40 years. 

Student engagement is strong, but looks different post-pandemic

Dean of Students Amy Finley says student engagement has bounced back, though it’s important to look beyond traditional metrics, like involvement in student organizations. That said, participation in student organizations is rebounding. There are now about 150 student orgs on campus, including 21 that started last year. Student org events shot up by 20% in Fall ’23 compared to the previous year, and 87% of events were held in person. Other positive trends Finley is watching: Students are utilizing the extended hours and Zoom appointments now offered by several student-facing units, as well as new social spaces like the Wolverine Commons. Campus employment is another way hundreds of students are connecting with something outside the classroom: The university has 665 student employees, representing 35% of the campus workforce. And though it may feel a little quieter on campus than it used to, nearly half of students now say they’re on campus four or five days a week. 

A look at practice-based learning — in practice

Practice-based learning has become a chief priority for the university over the past couple of years, and faculty have responded with lots of interesting applications of PBL in their classrooms. If you want to see what PBL looks like in action, the four short videos featured at the SOTU event are a great place to start. Each highlights a PBL course in one of the four UM-Dearborn colleges. In CASL, students in a criminology and criminal justice course are working with a local sheriff’s office on decades-old cold cases. CEHHS students are collaborating with the City of Dearborn Department of Public Health to develop policies and practices for increasing tree cover in the city. In COB, accounting students team up with a local nonprofit to prepare tax returns for people with lower incomes. In CECS, students are preparing for engineering careers by building robots from scratch.


We’ll leave you with one more SOTU fun fact: This year’s State of the University and Winter Carnival were zero waste events. In all, we diverted 86% of the waste generated during the Winter Carnival from the landfill. Need more SOTU? You can watch the entire event on the university’s YouTube channel. Story by Lou Blouin