From left, OU officials during a media availability at Walter Hall in January 2019: Deborah Shaffer, vice president for finance and administration and treasurer for the Board of Trustees; President Duane Nellis; OU Trustee Chair David Scholl; and former Provost and Executive Vice President Chaden Djalali.

The Ohio University Board of Trustees spent hours at its Monday meeting reviewing the budget for the new fiscal year, revealing that an already declining student enrollment is taking an additional hit because of the coronavirus (COVID-19). The board also touched upon which groups of students the university is considering for return in phase 2 of its reopening plan.

The numbers of incoming freshmen at the Athens campus, which has steadily declined since 2016, is further declining relative to last fall, according to data presented by Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Candace Boeninger at the meeting.

The number of incoming freshmen who confirmed their intent to enroll at the university — meaning they completed their housing contract and submitted a $200 deposit — was about 300 students smaller than the class of 2019, which had more than 3,800 students. And, if recent trends hold true, the more than 3,500 freshmen with confirmed intent to enroll this year will likely decline following the first day of class, Aug. 24.

Just before the pandemic put further pressure on the university’s already strained finances, it was on pace to reach or surpass the confirmed intent enrollment numbers of years past at the Athens campus, Boeninger said.

But despite the current numbers of students with confirmed intent to enroll, the current official enrollment to date is about 3,200 students, she said.

Boeninger also said that OU in recent years lost many of its potential incoming students to both The University of Cincinnati and The Ohio State University, but she indicated that OU still has the chance in the future to rise again to the prominence it once held.

“We know that we’ve been the winner in the past. We know there is definitely some element of popularity that is cyclical in higher education in Ohio and we’ll be that popular place again,” she said.

OU isn’t the only school struggling with enrollment in the face of the pandemic. It’s become a nationwide issue as students opt for gap years or drop out in response to the questionable safety of college campuses. Others are deciding to either temporarily or permanently forego higher education because of their disdain for online schooling or due to personal economic strains.

Ohio universities are in a particularly difficult bind, as statewide high school graduation rates fall, leading to fewer students enrolling in college.

Later into the Trustees’ more than six-hour meeting, OU Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer Bradley Cohen offered a hint as to which groups of students will be prioritized in the university’s planned phase 2 of reopening, which is scheduled to begin Sept. 28.

According to a slide Cohen briefly displayed as part of his presentation during the meeting, colleges are considering those for return with a focus on “retention, persistence and graduation support” and “senior/capstone experiences,” indicating seniors may be at the forefront of consideration.

And much like in phase 1, those who need access to equipment or specialized facilities or those who are conducting research are also being considered for return in phase 2.

However, nothing is set in stone for the second phase of the university’s reopening.

“I cannot reiterate enough that no decisions have been made with regard to Phase 2, as we continue to work with public health experts asas we closely monitor case counts and other factors during Phase 1 before making decisions,” said Carly Leatherwood, OU spokesperson, in an email.

Cohen further revealed the university’s decision-making process behind its phased approach to reintroducing students to campus.

For the administration, the month of July — when COVID-19 cases surged in Athens, rendering it for a time with what The Ohio Department of Health designated as the most dangerous COVID-19 outbreak in the state — served as the turning point for its pervious plans to move forward with the semester fully in-person.

Alongside mounting pressure from faculty who were fearful of teaching in-person classes to thousands of students, the administration also received a plethora of messages urging them to amend their approach to the semester.

“We experienced a sea of change in student and family attitude toward out plan to return. There was a clamoring in our inboxes for a reconsideration and a ‘please don’t put my student in danger’ kind of message,” Cohen said.

At the time, OU President Duane Nellis in a letter acknowledged that the university formulated much of its reopening plan during May and June when COVID-19 cases were largely down in both Ohio and across the country, but that the realities of the pandemic in July led them to amend their approach to operating an institution that would have rapidly re-introduced thousands of students into the community.

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