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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Colleges face shortage of students

Enrollments are way down at small, private nonprofit colleges, report’s Hechinger’s Jon Marcus. Even lower-cost public universities are working harder to fill seats.

It’s partly demographics: There are fewer people in the 18- to 24-year-old cohort, especially in New England and the Midwest.

The stronger economy has pulled older people back into the workforce, which means fewer students seeking career training at community colleges and for-profit universities.

Ohio Wesleyan University is trying to reverse declining enrollment.

“The number of students in colleges and universities has now dropped for five straight years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse,” writes Marcus. “This year is the worst so far, with 81,000 fewer high school graduates nationwide heading to places like Ohio Wesleyan, whose entering freshman class is down 9 percent from last year.”

Enrollment peaked in 2011. A slow upswing is predicted by 2023, projects the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, but “it will be comprised largely of low-income, first-generation-in-college racial and ethnic minorities,” writes Marcus. There will be no upswing in students whose parents can pay full — or nearly full — tuition.

Already, colleges are discounting tuition more deeply to lure price-sensitive students, writes Marcus.  “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.”

Discounting tuition isn’t enough, said Emily Coleman, senior vice president of Maguire Associates, a higher-ed consulting firm. The larger issue is “how do we make this a place that people feel is worth paying for.”

Faculty at (Ohio Wesleyan), which has about 1,700 undergraduates, are preparing new majors in high-demand fields including data analytics and computational neuroscience. 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 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 contracts with Carnegie-Mellon University and a medical school to speed Ohio Wesleyan students more quickly to graduate degrees. The number of internships is being expanded, along with short-term study-abroad opportunities. The university is considering freezing, lowering or slowing the rate of increase of its tuition and fees, which are now $44,690.

Ohio Wesleyan has added sports to appeal to male students and internships and international study opportunities. The college uses labor statistics to develop new programs, writes Marcus. “It doesn’t do us any good to add a new major if they can’t get a job,” said Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment.

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