Ohio University is looking for sustaining its student enrollment, not growing it, according to President Hugh Sherman.
He met with members of the local media at a roundtable Friday in the Baker Center.
The recent census revealed that this year’s incoming class is the largest in the university’s history with a total of 4,441 students, said Sherman, whose term as president expires in June 2023.
“We feel that the best place for us to be, especially in a marketplace where there’s less students coming into the market, into the universities,” he said.
Between 2020 to 2022, approximately 1.3 million less students entered into a university for a four-year degree nationwide, Sherman said.
“So that’s about a 7% decline in the entire U.S. marketplace,” he said. “So given what our growth has been in the last two years, that it’s really kind of spectacular, right? We’ve increased our enrollments actually 50% from 2020 to 2022.”
OU plans to make full use of the facilities it has, Sherman said.
“The target is to be approximately 4,000 freshman students each year. So clearly we exceeded it this year, but the last two years, we were down. Last year before was 3,600,” Sherman said.
Because OU is in good financial shape, its staff can focus on enhancing the student experience, Sherman said. The university has invested in providing additional services, such as academic advising, mental wellbeing and supplemental tutoring.
“One of the things that we recognize, and again this is a national problem, is that the freshmen students who are coming into the university are less prepared because they’ve had these last two years of interrupted learning and distance learning,” he said. “Nationally, this is a big problem. So we’ve had to kind of double down. We’re offering more academic advising. We’re offering more supplemental instruction to help students be able to to get through classes, be successful and graduate on time.”
The university is in the process of completing a residential housing plan.
“We have about 7,500 rooms on campus,” Sherman said. “We’re embarking on a major effort to rehab those rooms and likely we will over the next five or six years, replace a couple of the dorms that are down on the South Green.
“I would describe it as a major renovation plan,” he continued. “It’s not to build extra capacity. It’s just to really upgrade the rooms that we do have.”
OU’s focus on sustaining the enrollment numbers, rather than growing them, is a trend taking hold at many universities across the nation, Sherman said.
“Right now, the number of high school graduates who are going to universities is smaller each year in the state of Ohio, as well as it is nationally. So it doesn’t make sense to continue to grow in a shrinking market,” he said. “What the objective is to use that 4,000 as the number that we want to stabilize at, and really enhance the experience that those 4,000 students have. I think with the investments we’re making, we can really differentiate even more the experience of a student who comes to Ohio University.”
Part of that difference is focusing on programs to help students graduate on time and retain them.
“Right now we’re at about a 81% retention rate,” Sherman said. “I think we can get up to 85%. So we want to retain the students that we have by really providing the support services to help them to be successful.
“Then secondly, our numbers have been improving these last couple years of four-and six-year graduation rates,” he continued. “If we focus on those 4,000, we can even get those numbers even better. So that we get more and more students graduating in four years.”
To help attract students, the university is making more of an investment in actual recruiting efforts. Those efforts includes getting prospective students and their parents to visit campus, Sherman said.
“We always really benefit when students come to campus to visit. We’re one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. One of the top 10,” he said. “If we don’t get students to campus, that hurts us. ... When students get the chance to come to campus and talk to other students, talk to faculty members, they get excited, they can see that it’s a unique experience.
“Secondly, we did a lot more of the normal things that a university does to recruit students. We’re doing a lot more outreach,” Sherman continued. “We have hired more enrollment specialists who are located throughout the state and out of state, so that they’re making calls. They’re attending the high school job fairs. They’re inviting students in parents to come here.”
With less students heading to college after they graduate high school, universities across the country are offering tuition discounts to entice prospective students.
OU has focuses on raising funds from alumni to created scholarships. It is also looking at other ways to make education affordable, while still being able to pay for the services it provides, Sherman said.
“This is an issue that’s happening across higher education. In the last 10 years let’s say, if you think about the financials —scholarships and discounts that are being given by institutions — at private schools, it’s actually doubled,” he said. “There are some numbers that are printed in the journals about how much discounting is being done. In many of the private schools, it’s like 60%, which I don’t think is viable for public schools.
“We discount a lot less, because the tuition is a lot less. But that (discount) number has grown,” Sherman continued. “We’ve probably, over the 10 years, public schools have probably increased that discount by probably 25%, 30%. But we’re in much better shape than the private schools are. ... The smaller private schools don’t have the established reputations.”
Focusing on student success will help OU establish its reputation, making it more attractive to prospective students.
“You’re investing four years and you’re investing considerable amounts of dollars to invest in a college education,” Sherman said. “What the trend so far, these last three years has been a bifurcation of the schools that students were making choices about.
“... If we talk about Maryland, for a minute. You’ve got the University of Maryland. And then you’ve got the University of Baltimore and you’ve got a couple private schools,” he continued. “If you look at the enrollments in just in the State of Maryland to see how it’s changing over the last three years, so it’s going to the schools that have big reputations. So it’s going to a school like University of Maryland and away from Towson University, Baltimore, and some of the liberal arts schools that don’t have a reputation. We’re seeing the same kind of trend in Ohio.”
Sherman said that some schools, such a Cincinnati, Miami and OU, will probably do well this year. Ohio State University continued to stay flat.
“Then you’ll see other schools that have really struggled these last couple years,” he said. “Some of the publics too that are still declining. ... There’s more reason to make sure that you’re adding value to the student experience, so that they understand why you come to Ohio and not go to University of Baltimore.
“I see that bifurcation. I think for those schools that are struggling and they have a high discount rate, they’re in more financial trouble and right now. We’re not. We are sitting with a very strong balance sheet.”
In an effort to still be financially solvent while meeting the demands of an increase in the number of incoming students, OU is realigning its resources.
The university colleges are working on their three-year plans, Sherman said. These plans look at enrollment and how it is changing each department.
“Each of those colleges will come forth with their plans, and they have to show that there is enough students in their department to justify hiring a full-time tenure track person to teach the upper level classes,” he said. “In the college of business ... they were close to their second largest number of freshmen. They’re going be impacted in a year, two years, down the road. When they start getting into the majors classes, they will need tenure-track accounting, finance and marketing faculty members. So they’re writing out that plan of what they’re going to do.”
So far, the university has not discussed whether any programs will be cut.
“We haven’t talked about that. I think that universities should always look for that,” Sherman said. “There are some things that I think we can do over time though. ... If you have a major and you’ve got five electives, it’s more thinking about can you justify those five electives. Maybe there’s only three electives and you work with another major and they also have those electives, so that you can get a sustainable number of students in those classes. It’s more at that kind of fine-tuning. It’s not really eliminating majors.”
While OU has put some things in place to help address inclusion and diversity, so far its staff and student makeup has been pretty much the same during the past three years, Sherman said.
He noted that during the pandemic on a national scale, students of color were the first group who either dropped out of college or didn’t attend.
“Last year and this year, we saw some improvement in those numbers, but we really haven’t made progress is what I’d say,” he said. “... We reduced the number of staff back in 2019. The proportions from 2019 to 2022 are stable, if you look at percentages.”
Sherman was to meet with Black alumni during a town hall later in the day to go through the data and talk about how the university will address the issue.
“It’s high on my agenda,” he said.
The university is in the process of hiring a consultant that will look at its practices, procedures, policies and programs. It will help OU find a way to attract diverse populations.
“They will do an audit, and at the same time, we’ll be working with them as they go through to develop a roadmap for where we can prioritize our efforts for the future,” Sherman said. “The other thing that we did this year is the Make Respect Visible campaign that was developed three years ago. Because of COVID, it didn’t really get launched, so that we launched in a big way this summer and this fall. That includes training of first-year students, resident assistants, staff, faculty and university leadership. A lot of that happened this summer.”
The university is also doing cluster hires.
“One of the best practices is you hire several people of color at the same time in an area so that they provide support for each other. It is easier to retain them. It’s easier to recruit them,” Sherman said. “So we’ve got different programs like that we will be launching.”
OU has a long list of things it’s attempting to do to create a more diverse campus.
“We know that we can, you know, we can do better and we can be more inclusive,” Sherman said. “We’re not where we want to be.”
Nicole Bowman-Layton is a staff writer for The Athens Messenger.