College students walk on campus. (Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)
Almost all of Ohio’s public universities and community colleges have seen declining enrollment in the past decade.
Ohio university main and regional campuses and community colleges have both seen a 12% decrease in enrollment from Fall 2022 to Fall 2012, according to the Ohio Department of Higher Education. Ohio public institutions of higher education overall saw a 12% decline from 527,190 to 462,949.
Despite the decreases, Chancellor of the Ohio Department of Higher Education Randy Gardner is not too worried about enrollment decline.
“I’m not unconcerned, but I’m more optimistic than I am concerned,” he said.
More than a million fewer students enrolled in colleges nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. But some of Ohio universities were already seeing declines before the pandemic.
“I don’t want to blame this all on the pandemic, but if you think about it, you have classes that came through two or three years ago, they are still in college, so those numbers kind of keep down and paint a picture that’s not as positive as it truly is,” Gardner said.
Students graduating high school could be opting to go to a technical career center instead of college, Gardner said.
He expects to see an increase in the number of first time, full-time freshman enrolled this fall.
“I do predict an additionally meaningful increase in its enrollment and first-time students,” Gardner said. “We can’t predict the future for sure, but I think the trends are positive.”
Ohio high school graduation rates have increased during this same time period of 2012 to 2022.
The four-year high school graduation rate for 2021 and 2020 was 87.2% — compared to 81.3% in 2012, according to the Ohio Department of Education.
There were 293,306 students enrolled in Ohio university main and regional campuses in the Fall 2022 compared to 334,264 in Fall 2012.
The University of Akron saw the steepest drop in total enrollment (-48%), followed by Wright State University (-39%), and Shawnee State University (-29%).
“Many institutions of higher education – both in the state and across the country – are seeing a decline in enrollment due to a number of factors that have been in the news, not the least of which has been the impact of COVID-19. The University of Akron is dealing with those same challenges,” said university spokesperson Cristine Boyd.
The Akron Beacon Journal reported in August 2020 that the University of Akron Board of Trustees approved cutting about $44 million from its budget.
Ohio University has seen a 21% decrease in enrollment from Fall 2012 to Fall 2022 and did three rounds of layoffs in 2020.
“The University faced budget challenges prior to the pandemic as a result of shifting enrollments, which has made it necessary for us to respond with even more urgency to address our new realities,” university officials at that time said in a prepared statement in June 2020.
Dave Meredith, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Toledo, said the reason for enrollment decreases are “complex and multi-factored.” UT has seen enrollment drop 28% from Fall 2012 to Fall 2022.
“If it was one thing, we would have solved it years ago,” he said.
Regional public universities like UT tend to draw most of their students from within 150 miles of their campus, so if the region’s population decreases, those universities have fewer students to draw from, Meredith said.
“There’s fewer people graduating from high school in our backyard,” he said. “The other populations that we tend to recruit from are being drawn into the economy because the economy is doing well.”
UT has also been getting fewer transfer students from Owens Community College, since their enrollment has also dropped.
Potential students might decide not to pursue higher education because of concerns over taking on student loan debt.
“People increasingly are resistant to taking out any sort of loans,” Meredith said.
There are 1,818,300 student loan borrowers in Ohio who together owe $63.1 billion as of Dec. 31, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The average student loan balance in Ohio was $34,923, according to small business website AdvisorSmith’s 2021 report “States with Highest Student Loans Debt.”
Some universities, however, did see an increase in enrollment.
Central State University’s enrollment jumped from 2,125 students in Fall 2012 to 5,395 students in Fall 2022. Northeast Ohio Medical School also saw a bump in enrollment, going from 789 students in the Fall 2012 to 983 in the Fall 2022.
The University of Cincinnati saw a 14% increase in enrollment and Ohio State University saw a modest 2% increase.
There were 169,643 students enrolled in community colleges in Fall 2022, compared to 192,926 in Fall 2012.
“If the economy is doing well, those populations dry up because those folks can get jobs,” Meredith said. “When the economy is not doing well, community colleges tend to see their enrollment go up.”
Belmont Technical College saw the sharpest decline in total enrollment (-56%), followed by Owens Community College (-55%), and Rhodes State College (-47%).
Eastern Gateway Community College’s enrollment skyrocketed from 2,561 in Fall 2012 to 30,348 in Fall 2022. Edison State Community College saw a 40% spike in enrollment and Northwest Community College saw a 22% increase in enrollment.
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