Despite five years of declining enrollment numbers, this year’s freshman class data point to a positive shift and potential for coming years to challenge the decline.
According to a university news release, the 2021 freshman class tallies 3,664 students and boasts the university’s most diverse and academically accomplished freshman class, with a 3.59 average grade point average.
The class represented a 17.2% increase from the previous year’s freshmen and a return to 2019 pre-pandemic levels. However, despite the freshman class increase, overall undergraduate enrollment is still on the decline, with university projections estimating the trend will continue through 2024.
University enrollment peaked in the 2016-17 school year, with 24,210 students enrolled in a degree program on the Athens campus. The following years saw a steady decrease, as that number shrank to 21,597 for the 2020-21 year, and yearly incoming freshman classes did not keep pace with graduates.
OU’s Vice President for Enrollment Management Candace Boeninger said it is a natural cycle for universities to experience waxing and waning enrollment, with the expectation that numbers would stabilize.
Boeninger attributed declining numbers largely to increasingly competitive university offerings, a trend that was only exacerbated by the pandemic as students carefully evaluated their higher education options.
“When we think about why did we have the peak and not sustain the peak, there is some element of enrollment in American higher education that is the people. We are thinking about college students who are making choices among a set of peer institutions, and there's lots of intense competition for students who have lots of choices,” Boeninger said.
James “Jim” Mosher, a professor in the College of Arts and Sciences who has done research into OU’s budget, named declining enrollment as one of two major factors impacting the university’s financial situation during his September presentation to the OU chapter of the American Association of University Professors, or OU-AAUP, according to a previous Post report.
Mosher pointed to the significant loss of tuition revenue alone resulting from a drop in student enrollment. Mosher approximated the net loss of revenue between 2016 and 2020 to be about $127 million and a loss of $37.9 million per year. He also indicated the university could potentially be facing another $190 million loss over the next five years, resulting in close to $300 million in lost revenue since 2015.
“The reason, in very simple terms, why OU is losing enrollment and has lost enrollment is it made choices that made itself less competitive with its competitors. So, this drove down enrollment, and it's had a huge negative budget effect,” Mosher said at the meeting.
Mosher said at the meeting those choices included a lack of investment in the university’s academic mission as well as campus features and attractions that draw the attention of prospective students.
Mosher declined a request to be interviewed.
To boost enrollment interest and competitiveness, the university has taken on more aggressive marketing tactics, hosting a number of virtual events as well as focusing on embedding staff in both Ohio and out-of-state communities to engage with prospective students, Boeninger said. She also highlighted changes to the Ohio Excellence Award Program, which the university hopes will incentivize students by offering a competitive financial aid offer.
Boeninger indicated that despite enrollment and marketing challenges the pandemic created, it also provided an opportunity to assess recruitment strategies going forward, which may include incorporating more virtual aspects and opportunities.
“We've learned some really great things about how to do some of this virtually, too,” Boeninger said. “So, how do we build a hybrid model that meets students where they are and also take some of the really successful things that we had in place pre-COVID and put them together into a plan that helps families choose us for next fall?”