Colleges and Universities Deal with Demographics, Public Perceptions

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Across the country, colleges and universities work to attract and keep students as the college-age demographic declines and concerns about student debt and the value of higher education complicate those efforts.

In May, the National Center for Education Statistics reported that college enrollment for 18- to 24-year-olds dropped from 41% in 2010 to 38% in 2021.

And the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that post-secondary enrollment is down more than 1 million students compared with spring 2020.

YSU Enrollment Dips Slightly

Youngstown State University enrollment for fall 2023 sits at 10,993, down less than 1% from 11,072 in fall 2022. That includes 8,492 undergraduates, down from 8,920 in fall 2022. But the number of graduate students, 2,501, shows a 16% increase from 2,152 in fall 2022.

Michael Sherman, vice president of student affairs, institutional effectiveness and board professional development, is pleased with the numbers. “I would say we are pleasantly surprised,” he says.

It shows that the work being done across campus, including in marketing and admissions, is working. That work increases the number of applications, which increases the number of students admitted, which increases the number who attend orientation and the number of those who matriculate, Sherman says.

“Let me say this, we have one of the most affordable public higher education institutions in the state of Ohio,” he says. “And I’ve been at several of them. While they’ve been great institutions, I would say, the value proposition here, because of how affordable we are, and because of the level of scholarship that we’re able to do, we’re the best value in the state of Ohio.”

Eastern Gateway

Eastern Gateway Community College, based in Steubenville with a campus in Youngstown, saw its enrollment plummet this fall to about half of what it was a year ago.

Fall enrollment at the college is 15,300, down from 30,285 in fall 2022.

That situation is different though, because Eastern Gateway ended its free college benefit and the program of Union Plus free college benefit at the community college at the direction of the U.S. Department of Education.

Those programs enabled students to enroll at the school tuition-free. The latter was aimed at union members and their families across the country who took their classes online at no cost.

Other higher education institutions in the region report slight increases or flat numbers.

KSU Enrollment Stabilized

Sean Broghammer, Kent State vice president for enrollment management, reported in an email that undergraduate enrollment this fall stabilized for the first time since 2016. Graduate enrollment increased, especially among international students.

“For most Ohio public universities, there was a low point in new first-year enrollment for fall 2020 and those students are now seniors at respective campuses,” Broghammer says. “Kent State has experienced growth in entering first-year student cohorts the past few years and we anticipate small incremental growth in undergraduate enrollment the next few years. There remains some uncertainty as we project out to 2026 and beyond.”

Total enrollment across all KSU campuses is 33,530 this fall, up less than 1% from 33,209 a year ago.

The branch campuses in Champion in Trumbull County and at Salem and East Liverpool in Columbiana County saw increases.

At KSU at Trumbull, fall enrollment is at 1,098, up about 12% from 977 in fall 2022.

At Salem, fall enrollment is up about 14% this year to 899 from 790 last fall. And at East Liverpool, fall enrollment sits at 498, up about 16% from 429 in fall 2022.

The KSU numbers are preponderant, meaning a student who takes classes at more than one campus is counted at the campus where he takes the majority of his classes.

Fall enrollment at other higher learning institutions across the Mahoning and Shenango Valley region increased.

Athletics Boosts Penn State Shenango

Penn State Shenango in Sharon, Pa., saw a 19% increase this fall compared to a year ago. The number grew to 340 from 285.

“We can attribute the enrollment increase to the increased interest in our athletic programs, including our newly launched baseball program as well as the cost-conscious students and families who find value in earning a bachelor’s or associate degree from Penn State through the lower tuition options that the commonwealth campuses offer,” Mike McElroy, strategic communications and marketing coordinator, says in an email.

Private Colleges See Gains

Both Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., and Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pa., saw enrollment increases this fall.

Thiel is up to 827 undergraduate students and 101 graduate students, compared to 801 and 103, respectively.

Dominick DiRenzo, communications and marketing director at the college, says this marks the fourth consecutive year of growth. “For the one-year difference over last year, we had strong retention figures,” he says via email. “The four-year growth trend has been powered by both the stronger retention numbers and the growth of our graduate programs.”

Westminster fall 2023 enrollment of full-time undergraduate students is 1,055, up from 1,012 last year.

YSU Efforts Paying Off

At YSU, 81% of its students last year received scholarships and grants toward their education.

“That’s a pretty high percentage,” says Elaine Ruse, associate vice president of enrollment planning and management. “And then 90% of our students receive some form of financial aid.”

That positions the university well to meet student and parent expectations because, Ruse says, “We offer this high quality education at a very affordable price.”

The university has also been focusing on marketing.

Its chief marketing officer, Ross Morrone, says the university has been expanding into a wider market including Cleveland, Canton, Akron and Pittsburgh, as the population in the Valley declines. Marketing efforts also focused on brand recognition, hitting digital as well as more traditional media platforms to reach prospective students.

“One of the things that is really critical as institutions respond to demography is brand awareness,” Sherman says.

YSU unveiled a new marketing strategy this fall with “Know Y.”

“We believe the Know Y has significant potential to help brand recognition, brand identity based upon the strategies that will be put in place,” Sherman says.

Morrone says the university is expanding those efforts into other states and other countries.

Its international student enrollment this fall hit 953, compared to 561 last fall.

The importance of those strategies intensifies as the number of high school graduates in the United States is projected to peak in 2025 and then fall off for at least several years.

That comes amid a loss of belief in the value of higher education even though statistics show that on average, people with a college degree earn more over the course of their working lives than those without one.

A March 2023 Wall Street Journal/NORC at the University of Chicago poll found that 56% of Americans don’t think earning a four-year degree is worth the cost. “I think higher education in general has to control that narrative better,” Morrone says.

YSU is also reaching out to students who earned credits but didn’t graduate to help them return to school and earn their degrees.

Sherman says the effort to address enrollment is campuswide with committees from various departments meeting regularly to discuss issues and devise solutions.

One change from that dealt with students’ unpaid balances. Previously, if a student had an unpaid balance he was removed from the registration rolls and not permitted to register for the next semester. Once the balance was paid, he had to re-register and hope to get the classes he wanted, Sherman says. Many students just gave up.

“How student-success oriented is that?” he asks rhetorically. “How student-retention oriented is that?”

Ruse says such students are no longer removed from the registration rolls or prohibited from registering. The university works with students with an outstanding balance to help them develop a plan.

“We’ve always been student centered. But now it’s even more important because they have so many more choices,” she says.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.