Students on campus amid pandemic

Two students carrying their take-out boxed lunches from Nelson Commons on Ohio University’s South Green. Photo by Ben Peters.

The official Ohio University enrollment census shows a broad decline in enrollment across the Athens and regional campuses, but a larger-than-anticipated incoming freshman class has the administration hopeful of stabilizing enrollment.

Candace Boeninger, vice president of enrollment management, presented fall 2021 enrollment figures to the Ohio University Board of Trustees in its meeting Oct. 7.

The university's official census, made in early September, shows 3,664 first-year students are currently enrolled, a jump of 17% over the 2020 incoming class. Overall undergraduate enrollment on the Athens campus is 14,779 — 325 students over the projected number.

The university's total enrollment across all campuses this fall declined by 5.7% over 2020. Overall enrollment on the Athens campus and e-campus dropped by 3.4%, to 24,429 

In the trustees' meeting, Boeninger attributed the decline to larger classes of students graduating.

Since 2015, Ohio University has been faced with a crisis of declining enrollment. In 2015, the incoming class was 4,423 students. In 2020, there were 3,126 incoming students.

The large 2021 freshman class is a source of optimism for the administration, according to OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood.

“We are encouraged by the rebound in enrollment in Athens freshman class, and we are optimistic that the momentum that has built over the past year will continue to impact enrollment for fall 2022 and beyond,” Leatherwood wrote in an email.

According to Boeninger's presentation, the 2021 freshman cohort beat the department's projections by 136 students. The university also narrowly beat its projections for overall undergraduate enrollment by 325 students.

The incoming class also has the highest average GPA of any freshman class at 3.59, according to Boeninger's presentation. The College of Business, College of Fine Arts, and the Honors Tutorial College all have a record class size.

Half of the university's 28,770 students are enrolled on regional campuses or online, Boeninger said.  

The University also saw growth in select online programs, record applications in the University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, an increase in student retention at OHIO’s regional campuses, and record enrollment in key professional programs, according to a release. In addition, the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine received a record number of applications and set a record in terms of incoming average GPA at 3.68. Of the incoming class, 17 percent were the first in their family to earn a bachelor’s degree, and 93 percent were from Ohio.

Ohio University also set new records in undergraduate program enrollment in the College of Business and the College of Fine Arts, according to a release. A total of 584 incoming students are pursuing degrees in the College of Business, a 61 percent year-over-year increase, and 223 new students entered as artists, designers, musicians and performers in the College of Fine Arts.

The Ohio University census also shows some increases in diversity, with a record 6.5% proportion of incoming African American, a reversal from four years of declining African American student enrollment.

Ohio’s overall Black population composes 14.3% of the general state population, according to the U.S. census.

The hispanic and latino population of Ohio University incoming freshmen grew by seven to 150, which is lower than the recent 2018 high-water mark of 153 incoming hispanic or latino students. Hispanic and latino students make up 4% of incoming students, matching the state’s overall percentage, according to the census.

Boeninger said during her presentation to the Board that the enrollment team wanted to work on improving diversity in Ohio University enrollment. Inside Higher Ed reported last month that a study found that “minority students are more likely than white students to say that the pandemic changed their (educational) plans.”

“And one of the reasons for that is that we know the pandemic has had disproportionate impacts on underrepresented populations,” Boeninger said. “This was a focus for us.”

The percentage of students from counties designated as Apppalachian by the Appalachian Regional Commission has been seeing years of steady but slow decline. In 2017, Ohio Appalachian student enrollment was 26.1% of the population across all campuses. In 2021, the percentage has fallen to 25%, according to provided data. However, the incoming freshman class had 621 students from Appalachian Ohio counties, a rebound of 41 from 2020.

Leatherwood said Appalachian students “comprise a critical component of the student body.”

“One of the most important things OHIO can do to improve educational outcomes in our Appalachian communities is to ensure that we are providing access to information about opportunities for higher education, including funding opportunities,” Leatherwood said in a statement.

Boeninger said while enrollment numbers among Appalachian Ohioans has increased as a number, she acknowledged outreach work needed to be done to end the years of decline.

She said the university needed to engage with school districts in Appalachian Ohio to let them know affordable education can be accessible to them. She said Ohio University is working with the state to help the Athens-Meigs Educational Service Center to get the FAFSA 22 grant, which will help offer financial literacy and financial aid counseling to students at schools in those counties.

According to the FAFSA 22 webpage, Ohio University one of 25 recipients of the grant. The grant spread $1,723,133 among the recipients.

“(We want to focus) particularly on high schools where students submitted FAFSA’s at a lower rate compared to state trends,” Boeninger said. “This is something that is specific to Ohio University because of our situation in the region, but Appalachian students going to college anywhere is a trend that we’re working to try and support.”

Regional campuses also precipitously declined in enrollment. Ohio University Chillicothe declined 193 students for a 13% decrease in student population. Lancaster, which had 1,615 students in 2017, now has 898 — nearly half from four years ago.

Boeninger said the decline of regional campuses was “another area (Ohio University was) not able to interrupt the trend.” “It’s a point of concern — the regional campuses — one we’ve talked about quite a bit,” Boeninger said.

She said community colleges nationally were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

The number of students enrolled in community colleges – local educational establishments that offer two-year courses – was down 9.5%, about 476,000 fewer students than in spring 2020, according to The Guardian.

Boeninger, however, also cautioned not to chalk up the decline to only being affected by the pandemic, pointing to years of decreases.

“This is something that has been a trend for a while,” Boeninger said.


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