In the last decade Chicago’s Roosevelt University put in a lot of money and effort to try and improve the school’s image. The college, founded in 1945 with a curriculum focused on social justice, built athletics facilities and new programs for physical education and pharmacy studies. The school’s ambitious marketing projects aimed to jack up enrollment too. Roosevelt even had sports again. But it hasn’t worked out so well.

The Washington Monthly has written before about colleges that are trying hard to become more prestigious. Their social climbing efforts are often kind of entertaining, but school improvement endeavors sometimes fail, especially in this economy.

According to an articleby Kevin Kiley in Inside Higher Ed:

Once cheered by alumni and professors, Roosevelt University’s ambitious expansion plans are coming back to bite the university now that reality isn’t lining up with the university’s projections for growth — particularly expectations about enrollment that administrators now call “overly optimistic.”

But lower-than-expected enrollment and higher-than-normal costs have created a $7.8 million budget hole for the 2011-12 fiscal year, and the administration’s decisions about how to patch that hole have upset numerous faculty members, particularly the adjunct union, which could see its membership cut in half as a result of lost jobs.

What happens when a college fall shorts of its goals? It’s not just a matter of remaining in the low rungs in U.S. News & World Report rankings. The spending decisions colleges make in an effort to become prestigious have real financial consequences. Kiley:

The budget hole and the ensuing debates are a rude awakening for the university, which, like many others, planned to fund academic and expansion goals primarily through enrollment growth. With that growth falling off, the university is now stuck with costs that far outpace revenue, and it will have to rethink how to fund the remainder of its current projects and continue on its growth trajectory.

From 2007 to 2009 the school’s enrollment grew faster than ever before, enabling the school to build and hire more professors. But then enrollment dropped, by almost 1000 students. That’s a big problem. As the university’s president, Charles Middleton, explained to faculty in a recent meeting:

Our assumption has been that the overall environment in higher education would remain more or less the same as it has been over the past several decades. These are assumptions we now know did not hold true. It is clear that we were overly optimistic. We now face significant challenges both for this coming academic year and beyond.

“Significant challenges” for sure. Apparently in 2009, $109 million of Roosevelt’s $120 million revenue (more than 90 percent) came from undergraduate tuition. New students, and the tuition they provided, were basically the only way the school made money. Without them the school’s future looks pretty bleak.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer