The heady days of surging enrollment might be over for now at Ohio’s colleges and universities.
The number of high school graduates are on a decade-long-plus decline, and already some institutions are beginning to feel the pinch.
Enrollment at Ohio’s public colleges and universities fell almost 6 percent last fall, and figures at independent, not-for-profit colleges were down for the first time in 25 years.
“This is a long-term structural issue for us,” said Tom Chema, president of the private Hiram College in Portage County. “You’re going to see mergers, acquisitions, institutions that will choose to be in a different market.”
While college enrollment nationwide is expected to grow overall in the next decade, a handful of states, including Ohio, will see declines, thanks to shrinking populations.
The jury is out on how big the decline will be, though, with competing organizations providing vastly different figures.
According to a new report from the U.S. Department of Education, the number of public high school graduates in Ohio will drop more than 18 percent between the peak of 2008-09 and 2021-22 — from 122,200 to 99,990.
Meanwhile, the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education projects a softer decline in Ohio, to 111,600 high school graduates, or 9 percent less, by 2021-22.
Those students are crucial to higher education, as they have been the main fuel to fill seats in classrooms and beds in residence halls.
“The decline is clearly going to have an impact,” said C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, which promotes private, not-for-profit institutions. “The question is, ‘How severe will that decline be?’ ”
Decline has started
Many tax-supported universities felt that rumbling last fall. Ohio’s 61 public colleges and universities saw enrollment fall 6 percent, or 31,000 students. At the University of Akron, enrollment fell 3 percent after six consecutive years of growth.
Provost Mike Sherman said UA foresaw the downturn and has plans in gear to stem future losses.
Those plans include everything from working with area schools to improve the number of college-ready students who he hopes will turn to UA to a new internship program beginning this spring for 250 undergraduates.
The latter should feed into the university’s master plan, Vision 2020, which aims to find jobs for 80 percent of graduates within six months of graduation, Sherman said.
“Yes, we’re going to have to be competitive and do some things differently,” he said. “We’re going to be part of the solution to offset the population trend.”
Colleges say they will do everything from poaching students from other states to revving up outreach to military veterans and offering more lucrative scholarships.
The private College of Wooster has amped up its outreach to high school counselors in Ohio and in southwestern states like Arizona, meeting all its enrollment goals despite the downturn, dean of students Jennifer Winge said.
But for colleges that compete predominantly in state, competition is keen. More than 100 public and private, two- and four-year colleges in the Buckeye State are competing for the same students in the same high schools.
Messages more targeted
And the declining high school student population might not have the expected effect of holding down costs, said Rebecca Watts, associate vice chancellor for the Ohio Board of Regents, which coordinates tax-supported higher education statewide.
“Students may say, ‘I don’t want to share a bedroom and I want at least two bathrooms for four people,’ ” Watts said, which could require institutions to improve facilities or build new ones. “Students can make their needs very clear. Sometimes it drives costs up.”
Colleges and universities will be forced to recruit with more targeted messages. Faculty in music and agriculture traditionally have recruited for top students one-on-one, and other disciplines might be forced to follow suit to bring in the best students.
Recruitment “will take a lot of work,” said T. David Garcia, associate vice president for enrollment services at Kent State.
The university, the state’s second largest after Ohio State, is working to attract better students who will stay all four years of an undergraduate program, not marginal students who drop out and have to be replaced. Like its sister institutions, KSU also wants more out-of-state, graduate, veteran and international students to buttress the downturn in the high school population.
That could help moderate another challenge: the burgeoning shale gas industry in eastern Ohio, which is home to KSU’s regional campuses and to some of the university’s biggest enrollment hikes in recent years. Good jobs can divert students from college.
While the main campus in Kent grew last fall, six of KSU’s seven regional campuses lost enrollment after sometimes dizzying increases recently.
“We’re not looking to grow significantly,” Garcia said. “If at the end of the day we’re flat with our enrollment, that’s a good thing.”
Small schools may struggle
Still, Kent State, UA and other big universities might not face the same threats as smaller, independent colleges, where even a 5 percent decrease in students can be a major blow.
While the U.S. Department of Education said that public college enrollment nationwide rose 36 between 1996 and 2010, private enrollment spiked 81 percent during the same period. In short, smaller, private colleges have more to lose in an enrollment downturn.
At Hiram College, which with 1,400 students is the smallest in the Akron area, “We’re going to have to run even harder to sustain ourselves,” Chema, the president, said.
He foresees that somewhere around 10 percent of all colleges — public and private — won’t be around in a decade, or at least won’t exist in their current form. They will go out of business or merge or be acquired by others.
That means it will make it harder for students to find the right college for them.
“There will be fewer students chasing a smaller number of institutions,” he said.
Still, he is optimistic that Hiram’s overall enrollment will grow to 2,200 in a decade with more distance learners, degree-completion programs with community colleges and adult learners returning to college to get an education or complete a degree. But he expects Hiram to have about the same number of residential students that it has today — 1,200.
Jim Tressel, UA’s vice president of strategic engagement, talks up college-going to everyone he meets. While he used to steer students on the football field at Ohio State, he’s now trying to steer them into the classroom at UA.
“It’s going to come down to who does it best,” he said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3729.