Student enrollment: the reasons behind the downward trend
The approximate 10 percent decrease in enrollment reported over the last two years can be attributed to normalization back to pre-recession levels, according to Vice President of the Office of Enrollment Management Jacqueline McMillan.
In the years leading up to the recent decline, enrollment was at its highest in the history of the institution.
“The state of the economy has a huge impact on higher education,” McMillan said. “Recessions tend to increase enrollment because people in the workforce want to make themselves more attractive to potential employers, especially when jobs are scarce.”
McMillan went on to explain that the improving economy began to reverse the increasing enrollment trend and that the subsequent decline over the last two years can at least partially be explained by cyclical fluctuations related to the economy.
Recent WSU graduate Matt Raska had considered returning immediately for graduate studies, but was prevented from doing so by financial constraints.
“I really wanted to return in the fall to pursue my master’s in engineering, but with the economy remaining stagnant, I decided to put it off until I had saved up more money,” Raska said. “Unfortunately, I’ll have to remain underemployed while I keep searching for jobs in my field that will hopefully help me pay for graduate studies.”
Others that were considering going back to college have also had to delay those plans due to poor economic conditions. Brook Maxwell has also had to continue working while she saves up money to further her studies.
“I am so anxious to return to school, and I am almost certain that I will be going to Wright State,” Maxwell said. “However, until I can find a decent job to help me pay tuition, it’s going to have to wait.”
Vice President for Curriculum and Instruction Thomas Sudkamp pointed to the decrease in student retention as another cause of reduced enrollment.
“We had large increases in enrollment in 2009 and 2010 when the economy lagged, but as the economy and job prospects picked up, some of these students opted for employment rather than continuing their education,” Sudkamp said. “In 2011, the federal government introduced revised guidelines for eligibility for student financial aid, which also affected a number of our students.”
According to data compiled by WSU’s Department of Institutional Research, retention rates decreased approximately six percent during the period in which enrollment fell 10 percent, suggesting that decreasing retention was a major factor in the enrollment decline.
Another major cause forwarded by McMillan is the transition from quarters to semesters. Students capable of graduating before the transition were encouraged to do so, which might have contributed to a drop in continuing enrollment, McMillan said.
Two additional issues suggested were recent negative media portrayals of college education’s worth and more students opting to pursue associate degrees, technical programs and certificate programs, rather than traditional four-year degree programs.
Despite the partially cyclical nature of enrollment, McMillan is confident that the recent slump is more of an anomaly than a trend. In fact, projections indicate increased enrollment over the coming years.
“We are encouraged by the numbers so far,” said McMillan. “There is good reason to be cautiously optimistic,” she added.
The Enrollment Management division was created six years ago, in order to facilitate thoughtful and strategic consideration of the various factors influencing enrollment, McMillan said. Since its creation, there has been a continually evolving, institution-wide focus on enrollment, in conjunction with all of the colleges, deans, departments and divisions.
Continuing efforts to maintain and improve enrollment include: college readiness, career development, and financial literacy initiatives in primary school; expanding Wright State’s catalogue of academic programs and improving the accessibility of education through distance learning and convenient hours.
“Enrollment is not only about getting students here, but also keeping them here and helping them to be successful through graduation and beyond,” McMillan said. “We didn’t like the decline in enrollment, but we’re really confident in this institution and what it means to the community.”