Colleges Change Tactics Amid Dearth Of Students

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Northland High School guidance counselor Suzie Thompson said she thinks universities will be able to fill any gaps from the projected high school graduate shortage with non-traditional students.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News)
Northland High School guidance counselor Suzie Thompson said she thinks universities will be able to fill any gaps from the projected high school graduate shortage with non-traditional students.(Photo: Mandie Trimble, WOSU News)

Colleges and universities which have faced increased costs and funding cuts now face a new challenge: fewer potential students. The number of high school students is dropping.

Colleges and universities have been told for years to brace for a decline in prospective students. The number of high school grads was expected to peak in 2011 and not reach similar levels again for 10 years. WOSU talked with some industry experts to find out how they’ve prepared to compete for scholars.

High school graduation classes are getting smaller. After peaking in 2011, studies indicate this year’s high school class will be six percent smaller. Over the next ten years, projections of the number of high school students will remain flat.

Narrow the scope to the Midwest and high school classes get even smaller. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, or WICHE as educators call it, predicts the middle part of the county will see a 12 percent decline in students through 2028.

Experts cite lower birth rates and fewer people moving to the mid-west.

These smaller class sizes present a challenge for colleges looking to fill their classrooms. They are having to adjust recruiting tactics and financial incentives to entice students.

“We’re going to have to take those students from someone else,” Larry Lesick, Ohio Northern University’s vice president of enrollment management, said.

Leskic said the private university recruits mostly in Ohio. But WICHE’s predictions have caused ONU to extend the recruiting range. ONU now goes to Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania in search of potential students.

“We really don’t see ourselves going off further afield because of the difficulty in establishing a brand, or an awareness, in a place where you have absolutely none,” he said.

But larger better-known universities can extend recruiting efforts beyond neighboring states which offers an edge.

Ohio State University’s VP of enrollment Dolan Evanovich said the university saw the population dip coming five years ago.

Evanovich said OSU is recruiting students from the South and Southwest where the population is growing. And he said they’re fine tuning their international efforts.

“I think we’ll be fine…I think some of the competition might be a little keener at some of the schools that maybe have a regional approach and don’t have the opportunity to utilize a recruiting center in Mumbai or Shanghai,” Evanovich said.

The number of public high school grads peaked in 2011 with about 3.1 million graduates. As expected, the numbers have declined, but David Hawkins with the National Association for College Admission Counseling doesn’t think the circumstances are dire.

“We still have a very significant large number of students leaving high school who are interested in going to college particularly as compared to the 1970s, 1980s or early 90s,” Hawkins said. “So there will be a decline. It will force colleges to work a little harder, but ultimately we’re still talking about a fairly full and vibrant market when it comes to interested students.”

So what does this mean for students? Well, Hawkins compared it to the housing market.

“Certainly a decline in population of students tends to be more of a buyers’ market for the students,” he said.

On a busy morning before the holiday break, Northland High School’s senior guidance counselor Suzie Thompson fielded worried students who missed taking their ACT test.

So far, Thompson has not noticed changes on admission standards or in recruiting. But she said she thinks universities will be able to pick up the slack from non-traditional students.

“I still think there’s enough graduates that didn’t either finish college or didn’t go,” she said. “I think with on-the-job training and the increased skills needed, I think a lot of older adults, mid-20s on up to all ages, I think they’re going to go to college.”

With fewer students to entice, David Hawkins from the National Association of College Admission Counselors said there could be additional opportunities for low-income and minority students.

“It does present an opportunity to really beat the bushes and try to reach some of these students who haven’t before really been adequately been represented on campus.”

While there may be a dearth of students, there is no shortage of institutions.

Forty-seven-hundred degree-granting institutions exist nationwide. That’s nearly a 30 percent increase over two decades.

ONU’s Lesick said it could be time to reexamine whether the current academic structure is viable.

“So it may be that we overall will have too many [schools], and that schools may want to be looking at consolidation or in mergers,” he said. “We’ve seen this kind of shake out in other industries and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect it in our own.”

Ohio has 222 degree-granting colleges and universities.

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