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Northeast Ohio universities still grappling with enrollment declines

People walk past the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center at Kent State University's main campus. Enrollment at KSU, like other public universities in Northeast Ohio, is down this semester.
Eman Abu-Khaled
Ideastream Public Media
People walk past the Memorial Athletic and Convocation Center at Kent State University's main campus. Enrollment at KSU, like other public universities in Northeast Ohio, is down this semester.

Spring enrollment is down at several major northeast Ohio public universities, mirroring a nationwide trend in recent years.

Cleveland State University, Kent State University, Youngstown State University and the University of Akron all reported declines for the spring semester.

But experts say there are signs that enrollment may be stabilizing. And there are two local institutions bucking the trend with enrollment increases: Case Western Reserve University, which is private, and Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C).

Cleveland State University reported having 13,608 students as of the 15th day of the spring semester, down from 14,825 students at the same time in 2022 and down from 15,260 in 2019. CSU also reported an enrollment decline last fall semester.

Kent State University and Youngstown State University also reported decreases this spring semester compared to a year ago, with YSU seeing a 2.2% decrease and KSU seeing a 2.3% decline.

YSU spokesperson Rebecca Rose said there were some highlights, though, including a 31% increase in undergraduate students attending college after high school, and a 3.3% uptick in students readmitted after leaving the school.

At KSU, Spokesperson Emily Vincent said the school saw a smaller enrollment decline from spring-to-spring than usual, the lowest since 2016. And, she said, a larger number of students stayed enrolled from fall to spring at Kent's regional campuses.

The University of Akron has 13,969 students this spring, compared with 14,928 last spring.

A National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report found that undergraduate fall enrollment nationally had begun to stabilize in 2022 after a significant drop during the pandemic, though the numbers overall still remained below pre-pandemic levels.

Jonathan Wehner, Cleveland State University’s vice president and dean of admissions in the office of enrollment management, said changing demographics have a lot to do with enrollment declines. The number of people having kids is shrinking, meaning fewer high schoolers — especially in the Midwest and Northeast — to select from.

He said there’s also a growing acknowledgement among many colleges that the “traditional” pipeline for higher education — high school graduates seeking a typical four-year college experience — can’t be the only source of students.

That's why a number of area colleges have partnered on the Ohio College Comeback Campaign, meant to provide financial assistance to wipe out the debt of students who return to college after they left without a degree. However, only about 2% of the 9,000 students eligible for that relief took advantage in the program’s pilot year, Signal Cleveland reported.

The growing cost of college over the last several decades has also eroded Americans’ confidence in the value of a college education. Fewer than one-in-three adults said a degree is worth the cost in a survey from Strada Education Network.

Private universities, on average, saw a small dip in enrollment since the pandemic. Still, Case Western Reserve University is up about 75 students compared to last spring (11,764 total students). Enrollment at CWRU has rebounded since the pandemic, higher this year compared to spring semester 2019 (11,324 students). Since that time, more Asian, Black and Hispanic students have enrolled, while the number of white students has decreased.

Community colleges nationally have also seen a significant decline in enrollment over the last five years, but Tri-C saw a 4% increase in its enrollment this spring semester compared to last year with 16,323 students.

Anthony Moujaes, a Tri-C spokesperson, noted there’s been a 9% increase — about 800 students — in enrollment of people under age 25 since last spring. Moujaes said an emphasis on simplifying processes like adding flexible payment plans, and continuing to offer a variety of class types, has made the college more attractive to younger people. He said having online, in-person and hybrid classes, and classes where the length of the term varies, help “meet students where they are.”

Smaller institutions like the Cleveland Institute of Art are also trying new strategies to help boost enrollment totals that have ailed since the pandemic. Michael Butz, a spokesperson for CIA, said the college has 547 students this semester, compared to about 624 students in spring 2019. Prior to that, the college’s enrollment had grown year-after-year since 2010.

Butz said strategies to bring new students to the school include partnering with College Now Greater Cleveland and joining Say Yes Cleveland’s scholarship program, as well as inking an agreement with Tri-C to more easily facilitate students credit transfers.

“Another part of that approach has involved proactive efforts to incentivize getting prospective students on campus, and, in turn, reversing the effects of the pandemic on student experiences,” Butz said. “This has proven to be key considering that many of CIA’s art and design majors are visual and hands-on.”

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.