Enrollment dipped at many of Northeast Ohio's colleges and universities, including Baldwin Wallace University, pictured here.

The pandemic-era enrollment drops are continuing for many of Northeast Ohio’s colleges and universities.

An analysis of the 26 higher-education institutions in the Crain’s colleges and universities full digital list saw about a 3.8% decrease in combined undergraduate and graduate full-time equivalent enrollment since the same period in 2020. Only a few nonprofit higher-education institutions, including Case Western Reserve University and Ursuline College, saw increases.

It’s a similar story across the country. Early data shows undergraduate enrollment fell 3.2%, meaning enrollment has dropped 6.5% from where it was two years ago at this time. Continuing a trend from 2020, graduate enrollment saw a 2% increase this semester.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found undergraduate enrollment of male and female students both fell at a rate of about 3.5%. Black, Native American and white undergrads had bigger declines than other racial and ethnic groups this semester.

Community colleges continued to be the most affected nationwide, though not as severely as last year. Enrollment at two-year publics fell 9% in fall 2020, compared with nearly 6% this semester. Northeast Ohio’s community colleges saw declines, too, as Crain’s reported last month.

The campus wasn’t alone, according to Scott Schulz, BW’s vice president for enrollment management. He said most of the college’s peers in the Ohio Athletic Conference — a list of 10 that includes the University of Mount Union and John Carroll University — reported the same.

Schulz suspects it could be because students put in more applications in lieu of making in-person campus visits to narrow down their top picks amid lockdowns. Yet BW saw about a 2% loss in full-time total enrollment this semester.

“We knew that being up so much in the pool meant that more likely than not, yield would be suppressed, and that was exactly what happened,” Schulz said.

Retention of those who started in fall 2020 fell slightly at BW. That group stopped out at a higher rate at Cleveland State University, too, according to Jonathan Wehner. He’s the university’s vice president and dean of admissions, enrollment management and student success.

The number of new first-time students at CSU increased this fall. There was a significant uptick in international graduate students, too, as travel opened up around the world.

“It was really that group that started in fall 2020, they did not come back at the rate that we had hoped,” Wehner said. “So we’re looking at, particularly for those students that we know didn’t enroll at another institution, what are our opportunities to see if we can reconnect with those students and bring them back into the mix?”

About half did go to another college. Wehner estimates there may have been some students who chose to stay closer to home during the pandemic year and then chose to enroll elsewhere as more places increased face-to-face opportunities. He said the others left for a variety of reasons: economic, mental health issues amplified by the pandemic, general COVID-19 anxiety.

The story is similar at the University of Akron, where the freshmen and sophomore classes “did not return at a rate as high as they typically have,” said John Wiencek, UA’s executive vice president and provost.

The university initially forecast a 4% decline in total enrollment. Officials later revised it to about 6%. But the final number came in much higher: 11%. UA’s full-time equivalent combined enrollment this semester comes in at around 12,400, down from roughly 23,000 a decade ago.

Wiencek said this drop only caused a net impact of about 2% to UA’s bottom line. Fewer students means fewer dollars needed for things like scholarships.

The university, like some other local colleges, unveiled several incentives ahead of this semester to attract students. An on-campus living requirement for first-year students was waived. Tuition was frozen for this academic year. Room and board fees were cut by 30%.

UA also introduced its Zips Affordability scholarship. After federal and state grants are applied, it covers tuition and fees for new students within a six-county area who are eligible for Pell Grants. Wiencek called that initiative a success as enrollment of students who fit that criteria almost doubled.

But Wiencek said some of the university’s other scholarship programs were “somewhat confusing in the marketplace.” Confusion, in fact, seemed to be a theme. The public seemed puzzled over which programs were eliminated in a recent reorganization of program offerings. The university’s faculty cuts last summer made headlines, adding another installment to UA’s well-documented woes.

There’s more collaboration now among faculty, students and the administration, according to Wiencek. The university is now turning to boosting its marketing efforts.

“We’re putting a renewed emphasis on that, looking at the way we’re approaching students and making sure the messages are relevant to those students,” he said. “We’re also trying to do a better job about bragging about what we do well.”

Yet turning around a years-long trend of declining enrollment isn’t done overnight.

“It’s building community and positive energy on campus that’s important,” Wiencek said. “The leadership turnover over the last five or six years prior to (UA president) Gary Miller getting here certainly didn’t help to build that cohesive community.”

Enrollment leaders at Akron and elsewhere across the region are staring down another issue that existed before the pandemic: The number of high school graduates in Ohio continues to fall.

“The demographic trends that we’ve anticipated are proving true as our enrollment declined significantly this year and is projected to continue into future years,” John Jakubek, board chair at Youngstown State University, said in a recent release.

It’s putting more emphasis on officials finding different pools of people to recruit and retain. There’s a renewed push for transfer students. Many are also figuring out how to lure back those who may have completed some coursework but don’t have a degree or credential, a reported 1.5 million people in Ohio.

Cleveland State has an ambitious goal to get to 20,000 total students by 2025. Enrolling international students through its “CSU Global” program will play a key role in that. But so will going into other markets here in the United States. Wehner, the dean of admissions, said they’ve been “putting feelers out” over the past several years, including in western New York, western Pennsylvania and southeastern Michigan.

Wehner said the university’s mission is to serve the students of Northeast Ohio. But, he added, there’s also an understanding that base must be broadened and expanded in the future.

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.