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Area college classes kick off during divisive time for higher ed

As area college students head back to campus this fall, they’re returning during one of the most divisive and challenging times for higher education with institutions trying prove their worth and withstand growing financial and political pressures.

About 61 percent of Americans say higher education — a $7.8 billion industry in the Miami Valley — is going in the wrong direction, stretching across generations and political parties, according to the Pew Research Center.

Though thousands will be returning to their respective campuses this month, more Americans have become skeptical of just how valuable a college degree is and that “cynicism” is forcing higher education leaders to push back, said Bruce Johnson, president of the Inter-University Council of Ohio.

“Universities must do a better job telling their story,” said Sean Creighton, president of the Southwestern Ohio Council of Higher Education. “The return on investment in a college degree is proven in terms of professional and personal prosperity. Higher needs to show how a college degree enables Ohioans to prosper, show how universities fuel the economy and develop the workforce that keeps Ohio competitive.”

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The cost of tuition continues to rise, and at faster rates than financial aid increases. The average cost of tuition for public, four-year universities was $300 more during the 2017-18 school year than the previous year. For out-of-state students, tuition jumped even more, with students paying on average an additional $800 for the year.

More than 70 percent of those students use some kind of grant, scholarship or other financial aid to pay for school, but the growth in aid isn’t keeping up with tuition jumps. During the last five years, grant aid only paid for about 7 percent of the tuition increases, according to the College Board. Two year colleges have seen an average $90 decline in aid.

Aid is a large industry, with college students across the nation receiving about $125.4 billion in grant aid

But colleges aren’t likely to stop charging higher rates for tuition, as financial signs worry many across the nation despite today’s strong economy.

While concerning for students heading to college now, these trends are even more troubelsome for parents with children entering middle school. Those student may be eight years from college, but the nation is heading into a time of declining high school graduates, with expectation that between 2026 and 2031, the number of high school graduates is expected to drop 9 percent, losing more than 280,000 potential college students.

“As money is on the forefront of the minds of young people today, many are looking for a college experience that is both cost-effective and contributes to a future career path where they have the potential to make a difference and earn a sufficient income,” said Corey Seemiller, a Wright State professor and author of the book “Generation Z Goes to College.

To save money, students will start looking more heavily at in-state colleges or community colleges like Sinclair Community College, Cincinnati State or Clark State, which have seen enrollment increases in past year. Or they may not go altogether, Seemiller said. Many students are already on the fence about higher education, with cost being a major deterrent that pushes some to one side.

Experiences are becoming increasingly more important across sectors, but young adults can now get jobs, apprenticeships and other trainings without going to college. And these changes will affect institutions.

Questions about the worth of college degrees have prompted Ohio’s universities to join forces, something that’s at times rare in the hyper-competitive world of higher ed. Earlier this year the schools launched a campaign called “Forward Ohio” to promote their value and economic impact, which will also push legislators to invest more tax dollars in higher education.

Ohio’s per-student spending is currently $1,581 behind the national average of states, Johnson has said. Expenses outpaced revenue at public colleges for the second time in a row last year and local schools are feeling the crunch.

“It’s a little tight financially but I think most universities are pursuing cost cutting measures and managing that pretty well,” Johnson said.

Up and down enrollment

Wright State University students may notice they have fewer classmates than last year while those attending Wilberforce University nearby will notice a few more.

Enrollment and in turn finances will continue to be an issue universities struggle with this year. Enrollment is a big financial driver of most universities as the tuition and fees students pay is often the single largest revenue source for schools.

With enrollment down, colleges are left to find a way to make up losses in tuition revenue, leading many to raise their prices in recent years.

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“Any time there are changes in enrollment numbers, colleges need to respond,” Seemiller said. “While there have been increases and decreases throughout history, this particular era may be different. The cost of college has become cost-prohibitive for many young people already concerned about their future financial security, perhaps fostering a trend of pricing some students out of the college experience.”

The number of Ohio high school graduates is expected to decline by more than 13,000 over the next 15 years, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. It’s a shift universities have been trying to head off for nearly a decade.

Wright State’s total enrollment is expected to decline below 17,000 this fall for the first time since 2007. The number of students enrolled at Wright State is projected to be around 16,224 this fall, nearly 3,550 below the school’s peak in 2010 when a transition from quarters to semesters started taking place.

Around 2,113 new students are starting at Wright State this fall along with 669 transfer students, numbers new provost Susan Edwards said she’s happy with.

“That’s a pretty healthy local community of students coming in the door,” Edwards said.

Wilberforce University —the oldest private historically black college — saw a big boost in its incoming class from year to year, going from 135 new students last fall to close to 300 new ones this year. Cedarville University will welcome a record 1,069 incoming students this year.

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Miami University, which doesn’t start classes until Aug. 27, has not released its enrollment projections yet, a spokeswoman said.

The University of Dayton welcomed over 2,200 students Friday, marking the school’s second largest class ever. Wittenberg University had around 536 new students this fall, an average class size for the liberal arts school, said dean of students Casey Gill.

“I think like any other institutions, every year enrollment recruitment and retention are a priority,” Gill said. “Demographics are changing and less students are graduating from high school in the state of Ohio so we have to continue to re-evaluate.”

Troubles still ahead

From financial woes to accreditation issues and scandals, area colleges are welcoming students back with a number of their own problems.

Wright State continues to deal with the fallout from its budget crisis as the school anticipates another $10-million decline in revenue this school year. Though the mood about Wright State’s finances has improved in recent years, there’s still more work to do, said board of trustees chairman Doug Fecher.

“I feel better about this year than I did last year despite those challenges,” Fecher said. “But, I also understand there’s still trepidation because everyone realizes we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Wilberforce University was placed on probation in July for failing to meet accreditation standards, largely due to its financial problems. About 25 percent of private colleges are running deficits, according to Moody’s Investor Services.

» RELATED: Wilberforce U. placed on probation for failing to meet accreditation standards

The university ran a more than $19-million deficit in fiscal year 2017, according to a letter sent to president Elfred Pinkard from the Higher Learning Commission, the agency that oversees accreditation for Ohio colleges. Wilberforce also faces a greater than $3-million lawsuit from a construction company and a $50,000 lawsuit from locally-owned Moonlight Security, both for unpaid bills.

“The decision will serve as an additional impetus to continue the work already begun in right sizing Wilberforce University and permanently establishing best practices in fiscal management and controls,” Pinkard said in a prepared statement.

Ohio State University may face the highest-profile problems of any school though.

In the past few months, scandals have rocked the school which is investigating a former and now-deceased doctor for sexual abuse. More than 100 former students have told the university of first-hand accounts of sexual abuse by Richard Strauss, a wrestling team doctor who worked at OSU from the mid-1970s to 1990s and died in 2005.

More recently the university placed football coach Urban Meyer on administrative leave after questions arose concerning what he knew about domestic abuse allegations against a former assistant coach.

While the multitude of issues affecting Ohio’s colleges are serious matters, they likely won’t make a huge difference to students starting classes this month, Johnson said, or to prospective students.

“While the issues that you identified are a distraction in many ways…They’re not really facing a crisis in terms of the attractiveness of the institutions,” Johnson said.

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impact on the Miami Valley. With 22 colleges and four branch campuses, the Dayton area could see major fallout as higher education institutions continue to struggle in the upcoming decades.

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