The number of Ohio high school graduates is expected to decline by more than 13,000 over the next 15 years, a shift universities have been trying to head off for nearly a decade but one officials fear could damage college enrollments and budgets.
Nationally, high school grads will decline by 140,000 over the same period, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which released a report this month detailing the trend. By 2032, the decrease in Ohio high school grads is expected to surpass the number of students that make up the undergraduate student bodies at Wittenberg University, the University of Dayton and Wright State.
Enrollment is the main revenue source for most universities, meaning the looming drop in high school grads could result in less money an institution would have to spend and could mean increases in student tuition.
“Enrollment drives everything good at the university,” said Doug Fecher, chairman of the finance committee for WSU’s board of trustees. “That’s why a student should care…if enrollment drops then resources become smaller and it makes it more difficult to do things.”
A slump in state funding for higher education, officials said, means colleges have become increasingly dependent on tuition dollars. The state contributed around $5,078 per college student in 2015, close to $2,000 less than the national average. On average, tuition and student fees make up more than a fifth of revenue at four-year public colleges and around a third of revenue at private universities, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
“Just like most institutions, we are driven off of tuition revenue students provide,” Reinoehl said. “It’s a significant portion of the overall operation.”
Ohioans make up around 80 percent of all Miami University students, 87 percent of Wright State’s students, and 71 percent of Wittenberg’s students, meaning the three schools stand to lose the most tuition dollars of any Dayton-area university. Miami and WSU officials though said their student body diversity, outreach and unique offerings stabilize their enrollment.
“Any institution dependent on tuition revenue must do some forecasting,” said Susan Schaurer, assistant vice president for enrollment management at Miami. “We have a responsibility to the institution to be strategic and to forecast what’s coming down the road.
The University of Dayton is likely to fare the best as just 48 percent of its students hail from Ohio. UD enrollment management vice president Jason Reinoehl credited former UD President Dan Curran for the enrollment make-up.
“I would say we feel blessed to be where we are on this,” said Reinoehl. “Leadership is very important on this. (Dan) Curran was very attune to enrollment trends. I can’t say enough how important that is.”
Universities are competitive when it comes to enrollment which officials said has led to little collaboration to try to solve the problems arising from a decline in high school grads.
At the Southwestern Ohio Council for Higher Education, there is a group focused on almost everything except enrollment, said president Sean Creighton. As high school grads start to decrease though, Creighton said SOCHE will likely form some sort of task force to address enrollment.
Fecher has proposed Wright State create its own enrollment task force as it’s the revenue source the university can control.
“The only lever you really have to pull at the university is the enrollment lever,” Fecher said. “You need to drive enrollment up and if that supply of high school seniors is going to drop then it becomes more and more competitive to bring those students to school.”
Diversifying student populations
To avoid sudden drops in enrollment, universities have tried to diversify their student populations, with UD being the most successful.
Around 13 percent of UD’s students come from other countries.
Miami and Wright State have targeted international students, which make up 11 percent and 8 percent of the enrollment at those two schools. Wittenberg has focused less on international students, with them representing just over 1 percent of students there.
Heavy focus on international enrollment can be risky though as Wright State officials found out this year when the university lost around 400 students from Saudi Arabia after a government scholarship there dried up.
“When you enter into the international system, every country is different,” Reinoehl said. “It’s complex and there’s a lot of risk but we feel it’s worth the risk.”
Miami, UD and Wright State have also tried to attract transfer students from community colleges such as Sinclair in Dayton. All three have transfer agreements in place and the University of Dayton and Wright State have branded theirs as UD Sinclair Academy and Double Degree.
“We need to make sure we’re reaching those transfer students at Sinclair and Columbus State,” Schaurer said. “We see that as an opportunity.”
One success Wright State officials tout is a focus on nontraditional students, which the university describes as military students, older students and working students, among others. Wright State tries to “meet students where they’re at” when they start college, officials said.
More than 2,500 new nontraditional students come to Wright State every year, according to the university’s web site.
“Making the courses and degree programs open to working individuals across the state is going to become more important,” said WSU Provost Tom Sudkamp.
Miami and UD recruit throughout the country for their students. Both have staff in other parts of the country, trying to attract students to Oxford, and Dayton.
Out-of-state undergrads make up more of the student body at UD and Miami than any other area university. Around 46.8 percent of UD’s undergrads are from other states as are around 30 percent of Miami’s main-campus undergrads, according to university fact books.
Attracting students from other states can be difficult, especially when universities are competing with big brands out West or in the Northeast, officials said.
“It truly is a community effort,” Reinoehl said. “Dr. Spina was in California earlier this month. They want to see more of our graduates out there.”
Spina told this news organization in November that he wants to expand UD’s “national brand.” Broader appeal is needed to thrive in higher education’s “hyper-competitive environment,” he said.
Certificates and retention
As universities try to grapple with the projected loss of one student group, they try to attract a new one. Certificate programs, which were once offered primarily at community colleges, are becoming more popular at universities, Creighton said.
“Universities are trying to get into that avenue,” Creighton said. “I’m even seeing more interest from private universities.”
Certificate programs target people interested in continuing their education and others interested in a new career path, experts said.
When it comes to a quick and easy injection of cash into a budget, Fecher said certificate programs might be the way to go. He attended a conference earlier this year where certificate programs were presented as an option universities could expand on.
While more programs may attract more students, universities plan to focus even more on trying to retain the students from year to year. A fear that enrollment could drop, naturally generates more pressure to increase retention, officials said.
“It will be more of a challenge,” Sudkamp said “It just makes us have to redouble our efforts.”