Cutler Hall

Cutler Hall. File art.

Ohio University is on track to welcome a larger freshman class this coming fall than the year prior, a first for the institution in recent years as fewer first-year students enrolling is said to be a source of the university’s financial turmoil.

The number of freshmen enrolling at the university has steadily fallen each year since 2016’s near-record numbers, hitting in fall 2020 amid the pandemic the lowest point since the ‘90s. Just under a month ago, a snapshot of mid-April confirmation data showed the incoming class was lagging behind that month’s year-to-date 2020 numbers, but a flurry of students who committed at the eleventh hour turned the university’s fortunes.

Dennis Irwin, a retired dean of the Russ College of Engineering and Technology who served for 17 years, said in an interview the late confirmations could have been the result of prospective students waiting to hear from their school of choice, being rejected and committing to OU as a fallback.

According to daily admissions records filed Sunday, May 2, more than 3,600 freshmen had committed to OU’s Athens campus, up from the roughly 3,000 who confirmed at that time last year. The final first-year class size in 2020 was just over 3,100 students. This year’s confirmation data as of Sunday was inching very close toward fall 2019 numbers. Still, fall 2019 saw significantly fewer incoming students than the 4,300 freshmen who started in 2016. 

The data was collected after the critical May 1 deadline for students to submit their housing deposits, a date, referred to as national decision day, where confirmation numbers become a bellwether for the final size of the incoming class.

It’s not clear how the data has changed since Sunday. OU Vice President for Enrollment Management Candace Boeninger said Monday in an internal email obtained by The NEWS there was expected to be “significant movement” in the numbers as deposit refunds and commuter exemptions are processed throughout the week, but that the data’s overall trend is very encouraging.

“Scale and directionality — both strong — are more important than the actuals right now,” she said of the data.

Irwin, who studied enrollment data for years as dean because of the financial implications it had for his college, said in his experience the number of committed freshmen in the Russ College held fairly steady after the May 1 deadline.

Boeninger declined an interview request to discuss enrollment, saying her schedule was booked for the week as she’s assisting the university in selecting an assistant vice president of enrollment management, according to university spokesperson Carly Leatherwood. But Boeninger forwarded the internal email cited above that was sent to the enrollment management and University Communications and Marketing teams.

“We are very pleased and encouraged by the direction and scale of May 1 activity, which indicates strong interest in the value of an Ohio University education …” Boeninger wrote.

“… We’ll continue to monitor the class throughout the summer, carefully tracking any assumptions that might impact our modeling. While it is still too soon to tell what the final enrollment will be for fall 2021, of course, I want you all to know and be proud that this is great progress.”

The university has previously said that incoming freshmen class sizes are just one component of the overall decline in enrollment. It’s also falling because students are graduating in fewer than four years. 

Final enrollment numbers for fall 2021 won’t become available for several months, but the university as of April was projecting a further overall decline over last year, making it likely to still be one of the lowest in decades. A significant unknown factor, Irwin said, is the number of second and third-year students who chose to return in the fall.

“I would be happy with this, but I’d say ‘Ok, I’m happy today, but let’s go home and worry some more,’” he said of the data.

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