While enrollment at Ohio State University’s Columbus campus boomed in recent years, its five regional campuses were losing ground fast.
Since reaching a record high in 2009, enrollment at the branch campuses has dropped by more than 20 percent, to 6,500 last year. Enrollment hasn’t been that low in at least a decade. In one year, enrollment fell by 11 percent.
“The main factor behind all of this is the decline in birthrates,” said Bill MacDonald, the executive dean of the regional campuses. “It’s demographics, and it’s something really that all of Ohio has to prepare for.”
Over the past five years, the number of high-school graduates in Ohio slipped by an estimated 4 percent, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. Regional campuses, which primarily draw students from within the state, have been particularly hard-hit, data show.
Years of rampant growth at branch campuses started to slide statewide in 2011, with enrollment falling faster than at main campuses. But no regional campuses reported decreases as steep as those at Ohio State’s branches.
The Marion campus lost 31 percent of its students. Lima lost 28 percent and Mansfield 26 percent. Newark fared the best, with an 8 percent decrease. Enrollment at the Columbus campus increased by 4 percent in that span.
Growth on the Columbus campus has been bolstered by students from outside the state, a pool that regional campuses rarely dip into. At the same time, more students are leaving OSU branches to attend the main campus or other universities, said Dolan Evanovich, vice president for strategic enrollment planning.
“Students can begin their education at Newark or Lima or Mansfield, and they can change campuses and come to Columbus,” Evanovich said. “The regional campuses play a similar role as community colleges.”
Pronounced swings in certain areas exacerbate the problem, MacDonald said. Population downturns have been steeper near the Mansfield and Lima campuses than in areas near other campuses, state data show.
Losses in enrollment translate to losses in tuition revenue.
In the Ohio State system, regional campuses relieve budget pressure by cutting classes that don’t attract enough students and, in some cases, cutting the lecturers who teach them, MacDonald said. “ You reduce your scope accordingly.”
Other schools have faced similar decisions.
“It’s a challenge for us,” said Bill Willan, the executive dean for regional higher education at Ohio University. “We can expect that, with lower numbers, of course our tuition revenue will be down, and we’ll have to be very careful about expenditures.”
Students at the five Ohio University branch campuses have been taking fewer courses in recent years. And even though enrollment has stayed level, university leaders are bracing for a downturn at those campuses.
“The overall picture is very clear,” Willan said. “The demographics show that for the next few years, we will continue to have a decline.”
Like other schools, regional campuses are amplifying their marketing efforts to compete for students. A campaign at Ohio State aims to sell its branch campuses as the OSU experience with small-campus charm.
The OSU Mansfield campus is adding housing to meet demand from students who want to attend but live too far away to commute, MacDonald said.
Population studies show that there could be relief soon. Projections show an increase in Ohio high-school graduates over the next four years, before a steep drop-off by 2028. Officials at Ohio State have run their own projections for enrollment at each of the branch campuses.
“Marion stands the best chance of growing. Lima and Mansfield will be more challenged,” MacDonald said. “It’s something we have to plan for.”
By Collin Binkley - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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