Ohio public college enrollment down; smaller generation, COVID both blamed

Enrollment changes vary from large four-year schools to branch campuses and community colleges

Ohio’s public universities and colleges are seeing a decline in overall enrollment, whether compared to last year or five years ago, as a pandemic trend worsens.

In 2022, 8% fewer students are attending Ohio’s public, main-campus public universities compared to 2017; 24% fewer students are attending public university branch campuses, like Miami University’s Middletown campus or Wright State’s Lake campus; and 1% fewer students are attending community colleges across the state, according to the Ohio Department of Higher Education, which oversees Ohio’s public colleges and universities.

“Ohio has — and will have through much of this decade — fewer graduating high school students,” said Jeff Robinson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Higher Education. “In addition, the pandemic caused some students to re-evaluate their postsecondary options, with some opting to delay postsecondary education.”

The one-year decline for main campus public universities was only 2.5% of overall students from fall 2021 to fall 2022, but community colleges saw a much larger decline of nearly 9%. Regional campuses in Ohio saw an 8.5% decline in the number of students between fall 2021 and fall 2022.

With fewer college students, fewer people may be trained and qualified to take key jobs in Ohio, like nurses, teachers, police officers and manufacturing technicians. It could also drive down Ohio’s tax revenues, as higher-paying jobs often require a college degree in 2022.

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There is good news, though: Ohio saw a 6.5% increase in the number of first-time freshman students enrolled at public universities and community colleges, Robinson said. First-year, first-time undergraduate students are important because the campus aims to retain those students to complete a four-year degree program.

Additionally, the number of out-of-state students coming to Ohio for college exceeds the number of Ohio’s high school students leaving the state to attend college elsewhere, Robinson said. Ohio ranks fourth among U.S. states in attracting students from other states to attend college.

Local colleges see problems

In the last six years, most Ohio schools have seen a decline in enrollment or have held steady, including most local universities.

Wright State University saw a 39% drop in enrollment between 2017 and 2022 based on enrollment counts taken the first week of September.

But Wright State did see an improvement in enrolling first-time students this semester, with 1,277 first-time undergraduate students enrolled, a 13.22% increase from fall 2021, according to ODHE.

“We are trending in the right direction,” WSU President Sue Edwards said at a Sept. 16 Board of Trustees meeting.

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The most popular majors among newly enrolled WSU students are nursing, mechanical engineering, elementary education and psychology, all majors the university has said are “in-demand,” according to employers in the Miami Valley.

Miami University, which has seen enrollment numbers drop 2% at its main campus since 2017 — not nearly as dramatic a drop as WSU — also saw a 10.71% decline in the number of first-time students compared to fall 2021, according to ODHE data. The university has about the same number of total students this fall compared to last fall.

Miami University officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Central State sees growth

Unlike other regional public universities, Central State has seen a 67% spike in enrollment since 2017, more than any other Ohio university.

The historically Black university in Wilberforce, near Xenia, is still among the smallest of Ohio’s public universities, with 5,434 students enrolled in fall 2022, compared to 1,784 students in fall 2017. Ohio State University, the state’s largest university, had 60,540 students enrolled at its main campus in the preliminary headcount this fall, and has hovered around the 60,000 student mark at its main campus for the last six years.

However, Central State also saw a nearly 24% decline in the number of first-time undergraduate students this year compared to last year, and 10% lower overall enrollment than last fall at the same time. ODHE data says 3,633 of the university’s 5,434 students enrolled this semester were online-only students.

Central State spokeswoman Debbie Alberico said the university has seen many factors that are pushing enrollment, including launching an online program, developing new undergraduate and graduate programs, increasing social media engagement, more funding for research, getting the university nationally ranked, creating a retention office and more resources for enrollment and staffing.

Community college data

From fall 2021 to fall 2022, community colleges saw an enrollment decline of nearly 9%. Robinson noted community colleges are often hit during times of economic recession, and the pandemic has impacted community college enrollment in Ohio.

Dawayne Kirkman, vice president of student affairs at Clark State Community College, said the college is working on improving its onboarding experience for new students, improving mental health services and improving enrollment efficiency through new admissions processes.

Kirkman said their most popular programs right now are driven by shortages in the medical field, particularly nurses, and manufacturing demand from the Intel plant.

Robinson said the state is working to attract nontraditional students into programs at both community colleges and public universities, including grants and incentives to students who have dropped out.

“We know from multiple data sources that increased educational attainment leads to stronger employment opportunities and greater wage and income prospects,” he said.

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