Ashland University

Ashland University is one of several schools to introduce incentives for the fall 2021 semester.

Higher education institutions are making moves to get more new students on campus this fall, eager to avoid a repeat of the pandemic-induced enrollment drops felt over the past year across the country and in Northeast Ohio.

Take Ashland University. The campus saw a 19% decline in first-time, full-time students last fall and a 6% dip in traditional full-time undergraduates. All sectors of higher education nationwide saw a combined 2.5% decline in enrollment and a 13% drop in freshmen compared with the previous year.

“It was clear for us that if we did not do something to incentivize students that we were facing a difficult fall,” university president Carlos Campo said of the upcoming semester.

That “something” is Ashland’s Tuition Relief Scholarship. First-time, full-time students living on campus who pay for the fall will see any remaining tuition for the spring waived after other financial aid awards are applied. Requirements include earning at least a 2.0 grade-point average and completing a minimum of 12 credit hours.

Campo said the university wanted to respond to the economic crunch the pandemic leveled as well as help motivate decision-making. The school also is upping aid for transfer students and introducing a four-year tuition freeze. The rate is listed at about $11,000 per semester for traditional undergrads in 2021–22.

Not everyone is dishing out deals to applicants, though. Highly selective schools across the country have an influx. Many think that’s due to many institutions moving to make admission tests optional during the pandemic. But national application data released in January shows there’s not as much interest at less selective or smaller institutions.

And it’s vital for colleges, especially those that depend heavily on tuition, to enroll students now following a year in which many schools took financial hits.

“If you have a second year where you’re way short on your budget, you’ve already laid off a bunch of people, you’ve already cut to the bone, you don’t have a lot of other choices at this point,” said Mark Salisbury, CEO and co-founder of TuitionFit, which focuses on making college pricing more transparent.

Cleveland State University introduced its “2-for-1 tuition promise’’ in 2020. It operates similarly to Ashland’s, except students don’t have to live in a residence hall and the minimum grade-point requirement is 3.0. CSU’s latest tuition rates haven’t been released, but an in-state student taking 12 credit hours would have paid about $5,592 per semester during this academic year.

The university’s vice president for enrollment management, Jonathan Wehner, said it was important for the institution to tie the program to students’ performance.

“We wanted students to understand that we were going to make an investment with them, but we wanted them to earn it,” he said.

Neither scholarship covers additional fees like room and board expenses. Those are often additional lucrative income streams for schools. Officials said both efforts are being primarily footed by gifts.

Ashland’s Campo said he thinks recent trustee support will fully cover the costs associated with the scholarship. A $1 million gift to CSU will help fund the tuition promise, along with fundraising efforts, according to Wehner.

Other places across the region have other new incentives. Tuition is free for 2021 high school graduates at Stark State College. Kent State University introduced a direct admission pathway to its MBA program for freshmen and transfer students. The University of Akron is waiving its requirement for freshmen to live on campus.

Applications are being incentivized, too. John Carroll University offered a laptop in the fall to students who applied and scheduled a visit by mid-December. The University of Mount Union announced plans to raffle off 22 awards to students who deposited before mid-March. Malone University is giving applicants a chance to win a $2,500 scholarship this month, too.

Yet there are still weeks to go before May 1. That’s the day dubbed National College Decision Day, though some experts say it doesn’t carry as much weight. Loads of campuses nationwide extended their deadlines last summer.

Just last week, Moody’s Investor Service upped higher education’s outlook from negative to stable. The credit rating agency wrote the sector is still facing “significant enrollment uncertainty headed into fall 2021” even with the bump.

“I think that what we’re seeing is institutions finally realizing that they can no longer survive with just a single, linear, funnel-shape sales approach to get students,” said TuitionFit’s Salisbury. “They’re going to have to find other ways to attract students.”

As for Cleveland State and Ashland, each reported an uptick of early interest. CSU said applications are up by about 30% year over year. Ashland officials said they’re hoping for about 500 new deposits, which would be an increase from the 432 students enrolled last fall.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus. This story is part of Crain’s Cleveland Forum coverage, which is sponsored by The Joyce Foundation.

Higher education reporter for Signal Cleveland in partnership with Open Campus.