The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many small colleges face big enrollment drops. Here’s one survival strategy in Ohio.

Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio (courtesy of the university)
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By Jon Marcus

DELAWARE, Ohio—Behind the deceptive quiet of a small campus in the summer, things are buzzing here as Ohio Wesleyan University confronts a challenge familiar to many liberal arts colleges: falling enrollment.

Faculty at the 175-year-old private school, which has about 1,700 undergraduates, are preparing new majors in high-demand fields, including data analytics and computational neural science. Admissions officers are back from scouting out prospective students in China, India and Pakistan. Recruiters have been on the road closer to home, too, in Cleveland and Chicago. In the athletics department, work is under way to add two sports — wrestling and women’s crew — and a marching band.

More money has been put into financial aid, the process of transferring to the college is being streamlined, and the ink is still wet on agreements with Carnegie Mellon University and a medical school to make it faster for Ohio Wesleyan students to earn graduate degrees. The number of internships is being expanded, along with study-abroad opportunities. The university is considering freezing, lowering, or slowing the rate of increase of its tuition, fees, room and board, which are now $56,640.

All of these changes are an answer to a crisis few outside higher education even know exists: the sharp drop in the number of customers bound for places like this.

“We live in a really consumer-driven society, and to be honest a college is an investment,” said Ohio Wesleyan President Rock Jones. “Families are much more discerning, and they approach it as consumers. That’s a cultural shift to which the campus has to respond.”

A dip in the birth rate means there are fewer 18- to 24-year-olds leaving high schools, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. That has coincided with an even more precipitous decline in the number of students older than 24, who have been drawn back into the workforce as the economy improves.

The result is that enrollment in colleges and universities has dropped for five straight years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Ohio Wesleyan’s entering freshman class this fall will be 9 percent smaller than the previous year.

How dramatic is the falloff? There were just over 18 million students enrolled in higher education nationally in the semester just ended—2.4 million fewer than there were in the fall of 2011, the most recent peak, the student clearinghouse reports.

“That’s unprecedented in the history of as long as data has been kept on higher education,” said Kevin Crockett, senior executive at the enrollment-management consulting firm Ruffalo Noel Levitz.

There’s no upswing likely for several years in the annual output of high school graduates, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Growth, when it comes, is likely to be led by students with a different profile than those who fed the college pipeline in generations past. Many will be from low-income families, from racial or ethnic minority backgrounds, or from homes where parents don’t have a college degree. This population poses numerous challenges: Colleges do not have a strong track record at enrolling these students, and they often need more financial aid and other support.

Supply of U.S. high school graduates is stagnating, posing challenge for colleges

“I have not met a president who isn’t saying this is really tough,” said David Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, who was just back from meeting about it with members in Minnesota and was off for more talks on the same subject in Michigan and Virginia.

More than 400 campuses still had openings for freshmen and transfer students in the fall as of May 1, the traditional end of the admission period, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Rising tuition seems to be taking a toll. Sixty-eight percent of chief business officers at schools said price sensitivity was eating away at enrollment, according to a survey by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Admissions departments have responded by showering applicants with discounts. Small private, nonprofit colleges and universities this year gave back, in the form of financial aid, an average of 51 cents of every dollar they collected from tuition. That’s up from an average of 38 cents a decade ago—a boon for students and their families, but a dangerous trend for colleges.

Cutting the price has been a first impulse of many institutions. Concordia University in Minnesota slashed its tuition 34 percent in 2013, and enrollment rose. The University of Maine, in a state where the number of high school graduates has fallen 9 percent since 2011, offered admission to students from elsewhere at the same price they would have paid to attend their home flagship public universities. That has attracted more than 1,000 new students to U-Maine for the semester that begins this fall. They come from other New England states plus California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. At Ohio Wesleyan, the average net price after financial aid and discounts was about $29,500 in the 2015-16 school year.

Discounting doesn’t always draw more students. And lowering cost is not always enough to solve the problem. Colleges “have to deal with the bigger issue, which is how do we make this a place that people feel [is] worth paying for,” said Emily Coleman, senior vice president of Maguire Associates, another higher-education consulting firm.

Coleman and other experts advise college and university clients to tailor academic offerings to student and workforce demand and adding popular inducements such as internship opportunities and affordable study abroad.

Ohio Wesleyan offers a case study. It’s in the dead center of the region where the student population declines are among the steepest—the number of high school graduates in Ohio, from which it gets more than half of its students, has fallen 8 percent since 2011—and the college is responding with a singular sense of urgency.

“Ground Zero turns out pretty much to be Delaware, Ohio, in the heart of Ohio,” said Warren, himself a previous president of Ohio Wesleyan. “To their credit, they’re looking it straight in the eye and dealing with it.”

To see what works in recruiting, Ohio Wesleyan studies data about the 15 percent of admitted applicants who choose to enroll—and the 85 percent who didn’t.

Among other things, this revealed that one group of prospects was dropping faster than others: men. That’s one reason the university is adding sports.

The data also showed that students wanted internships and international study. Both have been expanded. Visitors are invited to use a high-tech interactive touchscreen in renovated building to see places around the world where undergraduates are studying or serving in internships, from San Francisco investment firms to the Mayo Clinic.

The university also uses labor statistics to see what fields are in greatest demand, then tailors new programs to meet it.

One of the greatest challenges, as at other places, has been to get buy-in from the faculty, who have to approve new academic offerings. Ohio Wesleyan invited faculty on the curriculum committee to meet with the financial-aid committee, giving them a sense of how serious the problems were and asking them for help in coming up with majors that might attract more students.

That doesn’t always work. One faculty member suggested a new major in sacred music, for example. “Some faculty have a very clear understanding of the issues,” Jones, the president, said. “Others, less so.”

But there are signs of encouraging results. The new majors attracted about 10 additional students this year, said Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment. The university typically enrolls about 440 freshmen in each new class.

Nationally, Crockett said there is growing recognition of the enrollment problem. He recently spoke about the issue at one private college that he advises.

“And a guy comes up to me afterward who had been scowling at me the whole time,” Crockett recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m a chemist and I focus on my discipline and I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what the industry I work in was going through.’ ”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a school in Minnesota that had cut its tuition 34 percent since 2013. It was Concordia University, not Concordia College. This version has been updated.