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Northeast Ohio colleges and universities report further enrollment declines for fall 2022 semester

Annie Wu
Ideastream Public Media
Public colleges and universities across Northeast Ohio including Cleveland State University all saw declines in enrollment in this fall's 15th day enrollment report.

Many of northeast Ohio’s largest public universities are continuing to see declines in their enrollment, continuing to feel the effects of the pandemic, changing demographics and other factors.

Cleveland State University, the University of Akron, Kent State University and Youngstown State University all saw enrollment declines this fall compared to the same time last year. That’s according to schools’ 15th day enrollment numbers that they are required to report to the state.

Jonathan Wehner, vice president and dean of admissions in the office of enrollment management and student success at Cleveland State University, said a variety of factors are impacting enrollment at colleges across the country.

Demographics play a key role, however. Specifically, there’s a shrinking number of people having kids since the early 2000s, meaning fewer high schoolers – especially in the Midwest and northeast – available for colleges.

He said there’s a growing acknowledgement among many colleges that the “traditional” pipeline for colleges – those high schoolers who are seeking a typical four-year college experience – can’t be the only source of students.

“And that’s been one of our strategies over the past few years is trying to grow internationally or looking to say, can we grow our adult learners, or can we grow our online learners?” Wehner said.

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 recent survey from Strada Education Network.

A chart tracking Cleveland State University's total enrollment trends in recent years.
Cleveland State University
Cleveland State University
A chart tracking Cleveland State University's total enrollment trends in recent years.

According to the enrollment data, Cleveland State hasn’t seen as large of a dip in enrollment since the pandemic began, with about 15,330 students in fall 2020 compared to about 14,580 in fall 2022.

The University of Akron, meanwhile, saw the steepest decline during that time period, with a difference of around 3,000 students across its Akron and Wayne campuses (with about 15,000 students total in 2022). Kent State similarly saw a larger drop than others at its Kent campus, from about 27,000 students in 2020 to 25,850 this year. Enrollment was down across the board at Kent State's other campuses. Youngstown State University saw a smaller drop, with almost 11,800 students in 2020 compared to about 11,000 in 2022.

More broadly many of these enrollment declines started before the pandemic. Akron had about 8,000 more total students in fall 2016, for example.

Community colleges have also seen enrollment declines across the country, and Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) was no different, with about 15,760 students total this fall compared to about 18,750 in fall 2020.

Spokesperson Anthony Moujaes said the numbers reflect what community colleges are seeing “regionally and nationally.”

It’s not all bad news, however. Many of the colleges had highlights to report out of their enrollment statistics this year, reflecting shifts in who is actually attending college. Kent State reported one in three students in its freshman class this year are a first-generation student, and 19% are from “underrepresented” races, including Black, Hispanic and Native American students.

Cleveland State University saw significant growth of its international students this fall, spokesperson Wehner said, as did Youngstown State University, a YSU spokesperson said, with YSU at an “all-time high” of 593 international students.

At Tri-C, Moujaes said the community college is seeing more enrollments of high school graduates and continuing strong numbers from the College Credit Plus program (high schoolers taking college credits).

More broadly, various northeast Ohio schools are trying new ideas to try to boost their enrollment. The most prominent recent example is the Ohio College Comeback Consortium, a partnership between YSU, CSU, Kent State, the University of Akron, Stark State College, Tri-C, Lorain County Community College and Lakeland Community College.

Wehner said that program provides debt relief to any student who stopped going to college and had accrued debt who wants to come back to any of those area schools.

As long as they were enrolling at one of these institutions in the compact, then we were actually willing to forgive some of the debt, even if they didn't come back to Cleveland State,” he said.

The forgiveness amounts to $2,500 for a student who completes one semester, and up to $5,000 for completing two semesters or earning a degree or certificate.

In other news, Case Western Reserve University, a private school in Cleveland, reported enrollment growth this year, with about 12,200 students total, up from 11,465 in 2020. CWRU’s enrollment overall has continued to climb since roughly 2010. Case said in a statement that growth has been “intentional.”

“Over the past several years, Case Western Reserve has intentionally broadened and deepened its national and international engagement, as well as its efforts to enroll entering classes that are significantly more diverse,” the statement reads.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.