Prospective students and their families take a tour of Kent State University. (Photo: Kent State University)

Last fall brought steep enrollment drops for higher education institutions across the country during the pandemic. Officials at some of Northeast Ohio’s colleges and universities are hopeful the tide turns this fall.

But suddenly boosting enrollment isn’t simple, even as campuses open up.

The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women and communities of color continues to be felt. A think-tank survey of college students earlier this spring reported 65% said higher education is losing its value. Completions of the FAFSA, the financial aid form that offers funding for students in need or those from underrepresented groups, are down 5% nationally from this time last year.

And don’t forget about the hurdles that existed pre-pandemic, including Ohio’s dwindling number of high school graduates. For instance, Youngstown State University officials cited regional demographic declines as one reason why applications are down.

The university is projecting a 5% decrease in enrollment in the fall. That’s a point larger than the drop YSU saw last fall that brought its full-time enrollment to 9,739 students. It’s bigger than the 4% decline the University of Akron is forecasting for the upcoming semester, too.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Well, I’m not going to take a minimum wage job to go to college,’ “ he said. “It’s another thing to say, ‘I’m not going to take a job that pays me $20 an hour to go to college.’”

Diacon projects Kent State will come “very close” to meeting its goal of enrolling a freshman class of about 4,000 students. Fall 2020’s full-time enrollment dropped 4%. KSU has the largest full-time enrollment in the region, at about 27,000 students.

Like their peers, Kent officials got creative with outreach to prospective students. It included efforts such as hosting prospective student events at drive-in movie theaters. There’s the new “Flashes Go Further” scholarship, which will cover unmet need for in-state freshmen and sophomores who have an expected family contribution of $10,000 or less. Juniors and seniors will be eligible for some aid, too.

Diacon estimated the university will see a decline in returning students, though. It goes back, at least reportedly for some, to the job market. He has heard about students in professional programs who have been offered full employment from summer internships even before graduation.

The job market is affecting students at Cleveland State University, too. Jonathan Wehner, vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management, and student success, remains “cautiously optimistic” for the university’s projections.

Cleveland State saw its full-time enrollment drop 2% to about 12,112 students in fall 2020. Wehner said models for the upcoming semester come in somewhere between being flat year-over-year or down a low single-digit percentage.

“Students seem to be really slow in their decision-making,” he said. “They definitely seem to be taking their time and waiting up until the last minute.”

International student enrollment is projected to rise. That’s helpful, as those students typically pay full price. Like Kent, CSU also projects a drop in returning students. Wehner said that’s partially due to the university’s six-year graduation rate crossing 50% for the first time.

“That’s a great, great thing,” he said. “We’re graduating students faster, but that also means that students stay a little bit less time.”

Wehner added the amount of transfer students aren’t where they would have been before the pandemic. Community colleges were hit the hardest during COVID, as enrollment fell at those institutions by 9.5% nationwide last fall.

It’s too early to tell exactly how things will shake out at Lakeland Community College, according to Stephanie Brown, the college’s assistant provost for strategic retention initiatives. Similar to other two-year institutions, she said Lakeland will see a lot of enrollment activity in August.

Enrollment at Lakeland is trending down, though. Even with increased marketing and outreach to prospective students, it’ll probably clock in at a single-digit drop. Full-time enrollment fell 19% last fall.

“The one thing that we do have control over is how we support our current students, how we retain them, the services that we have in place for those students,” Brown said.

One of the few local institutions to enroll more students last fall was Ursuline College. The Pepper Pike campus’ full-time enrollment grew 6%, rising from 817 to 866 students.

Some graduate programs are “struggling a bit,” said Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment management. But she expects more growth this fall in terms of new first-time students. The incoming class is expected to have roughly 124 students, up from 102 last fall.

She said the college is committed to keeping and growing Ursuline’s hold on the region. The school historically has drawn the majority of its students from Northeast Ohio.

“A lot of schools have kind of let that slip,” she said. “We try to remain pretty aggressive and be in the forefront of students’ minds.”

Dileno can quickly tick off a few of what the college views as its strengths: It’s a women-focused institution, highly personal and a good value.

But when it comes to higher education options, Northeast Ohio is a crowded market. There’s a lot of competition as administrators focus on how to distinguish themselves from their peers to attract more students.

“That’s what keeps me up at night, you know,” Dileno said. “Really trying to get a scan of what other colleges are doing or thinking, strategizing in terms of how we keep our market share.”

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.