Why Ohio college enrollment is declining, how higher education is responding


Enrollment infographic

Laina Yost

Ohio universities are finding their next generation of college students — but they’ll have to look in new places.

In the next five to seven years, the number of high school students is expected to decrease, forcing the 13 public colleges and universities in Ohio to find new strategies to keep their enrollment stable.

The decline in graduating high school students is due to the 2008 recession, in which less people were having children during that time.

“Where will the students come from? The answer is not so clear other than we need to find students in different ways,” said Gary Swegan, the associate vice president for enrollment planning and management at Youngstown State University.

He said that enrollment is already declining and with the upcoming drop in high school students, it’s nearly catastrophic for all Ohio colleges.

Among colleges in Ohio, there is now increased competition for fewer high school students.

Not only are there fewer graduating high school students in the state, there are fewer students in states surrounding Ohio as well.

According to a study by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, the decrease in the number of graduating high school students in the Midwest is largely due to fewer white graduates. In Ohio, high school graduates are expected to decline around 12 percent by 2031.

“Ohio in general is one of the half a dozen or more states in the country that is predicted to have a double digit decline in the number of high school graduates in the next 10 to 15 years,” said Kent State Provost Todd Diacon. “And Northeast Ohio is really about a 20 percent decline in the number of high school graduates in the next decade.”

Kent State, which increased its enrollment 32 percent in ten years, is now beginning to see its numbers drop, largely in part due to the decline of international students.

Losing international students

The number of international student enrollments is decreasing across the U.S. Dave Garcia, the senior associate vice president of strategic enrollment management at Kent State, said the university lost 1,000 international students last year.

The U.S. has more competition for the students from Australia, Canada and Great Britain. Countries like China are also beginning to build their own universities and colleges, prompting more students to remain in the country. Garcia said international students are also facing more hardships from the U.S.

“For the U.S., we’re seeing challenges put in front of these international students,” he said. “The federal government plays a big role in approving student visas and what have you. I think with some of the federal policies and some of the actions they’ve taken have put the U.S. in a somewhat negative light, if you will.”

The University of Cincinnati, which has had a consistent enrollment growth for several years, is also concerned about the loss of international students at their school.

Caroline Miller, the vice provost at Cincinnati, said that they will see a slight decline in undergraduate international students, but the university is more worried about their graduate students.

“Particularly graduate students from India are seeking options other than the U.S, Canada and Europe in particular,” Miller said. “That has been the harder issue. It looks like right now, our graduate international population will be flat for next year.”

The loss of international students can be devastating to a university’s budget. Most of the students pay full price to attend a school in the United States. Kent State now has to offer discounts and scholarships, which does not bring in as much revenue.

“Not too long ago, international students would come here and pay full price,” Garcia said. “That is no longer the case, so by not having enrolling international students, that’s a huge hit on the university budget because we’re not getting all these full pay students.”

He said that the loss of international is putting pressure on the university to grow enrollment domestically.

Bringing in transfer students:

Universities are intensifying their relationships with community colleges to help increase their enrollment numbers.

Garcia said affordability is still a large factor in making a college decision and parents are making the decision to send their student to a community college first.

Kim Gentile, the senior associate director of admissions at the University of Akron, said the university is beginning to reach beyond the Northeast region and go downstate to attract more transfer students.

Kent State also partners with local community colleges and increased their transfer scholarship budget from $30,000 to almost $1 million last year.

“We’re really trying to take it to the next level and become a transfer friendly university where all of your credits are accepted applicable to your major,” Garcia said.

The added money in the transfer scholarship budget is meant to attract students to take their college credits to Kent State and complete their degree.

Admissions Criteria

Youngstown State and the University of Akron have both taken a closer look at their admissions criteria.

In 2014, Youngstown State implemented a selective admissions process, which Swegan said helped bring their enrollment back up and also changed the local, public perception of the university.

“As we’ve gotten bigger in our freshmen class, the students are also much, much better than they were four years ago,” he said.

Gentile said that Akron is also admitting students with a higher academic profile and those with lower academic profiles may go to a regional campus.

“We’re very excited about our freshmen class that’s coming in this fall. We have a much higher academic profile of the students that’s confirmed to enroll,” she said.

Gentile said students with higher potential have a better chance of persisting and graduating, which helps a university’s budget.

Kent State looks at admissions on a case-by-case basis. Garcia said the university has increased the freshmen profile over nine years.

How retention helps enrollment

Once universities enroll a student, they must be able to keep that student. Miller said that retention is a crucial part of the University of Cincinnati’s enrollment growth.

“Really if you look at the last 15 years or so, a third of our growth absolutely is just related to retention,” she said.

Miller credited the university’s resources for helping its retention of students.

“Virtually all of our first-year students are part of learning communities,” she said. We’ve done a lot in learning assistance to make sure that students have access to our writing center or math lab, tutoring, whether it’s in-person or online.”

Garcia said that retention does not play the biggest part in growing enrollment, but it is still important. He said that it is cheaper to retain enrolled students than it is to recruit them.

Diacon said Kent State wants to ensure that the university graduates all students who attend.

“First and foremost, we just want to make sure that if you get into Kent State, you enroll in Kent State, that you finish at Kent State. That’s just our basic commitment to the state and to the state’s citizens,” Diacon said.

Finding college students out of state

Out west, states like Texas, Colorado and California are seeing a growth in high school students. Garcia said the university will recruit in those states where the high school population is increasing.

The surge of high students in the South and the West is largely in part due to growing number of Hispanic students in that region.

But, recruiting further out of state costs more money and resources for colleges.

“It’s a huge undertaking,” Garcia said. “But if you can bring 10 or 15, 20 students, that pretty much pays for all that effort. It’s not like we have a choice. We have to look outside of our primary markets and try to develop new markets.”

There’s another potential challenge with recruiting outside Ohio: The further away colleges recruit, the less name recognition they have.

“The problem that schools like us face,” Swegan said, “it’s very resource-intensive to recruit further away from campus and then people aren’t as aware of who you are.”

It isn’t likely that finding students outside of state lines will be the single solution to the enrollment decline.

What’s next for Ohio universities?

Garcia said that they are aware the projections aren’t set, but Kent State will continue to stabilize enrollments through new strategies.

“We’re not going to sit idle and just watch this thing happen,” he said. “My job is to make sure we have strong strategies in place to flatten out enrollment, if not grow enrollment.”

Laina Yost is an administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected].