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Enrollment roller coaster continues in Northeast Ohio

Students move in at Baldwin Wallace University in this fall 2021 file photo. Officials are forecasting a smaller group of first-year students this year.

The enrollment roller coaster looks to be continuing for some of Northeast Ohio’s colleges and universities.

Disclaimer: it’s early. Things can change, especially for less selective institutions. In fact, officials at several local Northeast Ohio universities say their recruitment cycle goes right up into the fall semester.

“It’s not over,” said Steve McKellips, the University of Akron’s vice provost for enrollment management. “If people still want to come through, there’s still an opportunity, whether it’s here or most institutions around the country, to make that happen.”

To that point, McKellips declined to give any numbers. But he did share that the university expects enrollment to be flat this fall.

“It’s weird to think of flat as being a great piece of information, but we are really excited about being on this side of the pandemic where things are starting to normalize a bit,” he said.

Twenty minutes away at Kent State University, officials say enrollment of its first-year class is trending 4%-5% above the previous year. Combined with a 4% gain from fall 2020 to fall 2021, KSU reports it’s nearing pre-pandemic enrollment numbers. Many institutions nationwide and across the region saw drops during that time.

“This year really felt like a more normal recruitment cycle,” Sean Broghammer, vice president for enrollment management, said via email. “Students and families seemed more comfortable visiting campus and choosing Kent State early in the process.”

Baldwin Wallace University offered visits to its Berea campus throughout the pandemic, too. Coupled with things like streamlined messaging throughout the enrollment process and a scholarship calculator that guided students to clearly know what they’d pay, it made for a successful fall 2021 enrollment, according to Scott Schulz, BW’s vice president for enrollment management.

Last fall saw a first-year class of 727 students. A year later, this semester is on pace to see about 660 to 670 new students. It’s one of the biggest classes in the Ohio Athletic Conference, Schulz said, but still represents about an 8%-9% decrease from the previous year.

“We didn’t have, maybe, the same type of competitive advantage (this year) that we had last year,” he said.

Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University expects to see a slightly smaller first-year class, too. That’s intentional, though. Officials said last fall’s group of 1,600 exceeded their goal. The upcoming semester is anticipated to have about 1,550 new students.

It’s projected to be the most diverse class in the university’s history, according to officials. Roughly one-quarter of students are from underrepresented groups, and 16% are international students.

It comes after an unexpected 35% spike in applications. The interest is thought to be due to more applicants learning about the campus and its University Circle neighborhood, including relatively recent additions such as the Health Education Campus between the university and the Cleveland Clinic.

The Clinic recently issued a statement saying it will “continue to support women and reproductive health while also following the law” after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.

It remains to be seen what, if any, effect the current climate could have on enrollments. Many local institutions already see the bulk of their students come from Ohio and/or nearby states.

But at Case Western Reserve, 66% of the university’s total undergraduates in 2021 came from outside of Ohio, and 14% came from outside America.

“Students consider a broad range of factors when picking a college, beyond the quality of the academic program, atmosphere of the campus and overall cost,” Robert McCullough, assistant vice president for enrollment and dean of undergraduate admissions, said via email when asked about the potential impact of the decision. “Those factors, and the weight given to each, are as unique as each student.”

Another national change that could impact local enrollments is a dwindling pot of federal relief funding offered during the pandemic. Portions of those millions could be used to give students emergency grants to help pay for things like rent and food during the pandemic. The money may be gone, but those struggles could remain, offering a barrier for entry to enrollment.

“I think even as red hot as the job market is, we know the job market doesn’t serve everyone out there right now, and legitimately there’s still a group of folks that are struggling economically,” said Jonathan Wehner, vice president for enrollment management and student success as well as dean of admissions at Cleveland State University.

As to the bustling labor market, Wehner said school officials are hearing stories from working students feeling pressure from their employers to choose employment over higher education in the short term. Students who were struggling academically may choose to stop out and just work, too. It could be part of the reason why Cleveland State is forecasting its overall enrollment may be down “a little bit.”

Cuyahoga Community College believes its enrollment will follow suit. Two-year publics were impacted the most nationwide over the past few years. People of color and women were disproportionately affected during the pandemic, and those groups make up the bulk of community colleges’ enrollments.

It’s moving the college to look at “how time matters to everyone,” according to Angela Johnson, Tri-C’s vice president of access and completion.

“People are thinking differently about their time and the use of the time, in terms of having shorter programs, getting a credential and getting into the workforce,” she said. “I think those things are starting to matter a lot more to individuals.”

The college is looking at adding more short-term offerings as well as repackaging some of its current programs to add more clarity. There’s some time, as Johnson said the college tends to see more interest and decisions being made about enrolling in the fall tends to pick up after the Fourth of July holiday.

The enrollment roller coaster ride continues.

Amy Morona covers higher education for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

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