Ohio University’s fall enrollment surge raises questions about what to plan for next

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Ohio University’s fall freshmen enrollment might not set a record, but it could have.

The university’s trustees were told at their meeting Thursday that so many prospective freshmen were interested in attending that it had to put some of them on what amounted to a waiting list.

This was to give officials time to figure out just how much capacity the university had to house, feed and educate the incoming freshmen class, Candace Boeninger, the university’s vice president for enrollment management, told the trustees.

“This fall could have been a record if we wanted it to be,” she said.

A final freshmen headcount will not be available for a few weeks, but the number could end up well over 4,300 and upwards of 4,400, Boeninger said.

The record is 4,423, set in 2015.

The challenges presented by near-record enrollment are a nice problem for the university to have following years of declines that resulted in layoffs, hiring freezes, deferred maintenance and other cutbacks.

Administrators and faculty have had to get creative in figuring out how to quickly ramp up over the past couple of months to accommodate what is likely to be at least 600 to 700 more freshmen than last fall.

University officials are still in the process of trying to figure out why there was such an enrollment surge and what to plan for in the coming years, Boeninger said.

It’s possible the surge is some kind of post-pandemic blip that might not last. Boeninger shared projections showing that while high school graduation rates have been rising, the overall number of graduates will decline in coming years, especially in the Midwest, because of trends in birth rates.

But high school graduation and college enrollment projections based on demographic shifts have proven to be at best an inexact science, and Boeninger was quick to note that “demographics are not destiny.”

The university surveyed every student who was offered admission and chose to attend or opted to go elsewhere and is processing that data to better understand what factors are driving enrollment decisions, Boeninger said.

The university is also being more aggressive in its marketing and recruiting efforts outside Ohio. Boeninger shared a map showing that in most states the vast majority of students attend college in their home state.

This is seen as an opportunity as competition for students increases not just among colleges within a state but also among states. Ohio University already has recruitment officers stationed in several states, including Texas, which is tied with Alaska for the highest percentage of college students who are residents, at 93 percent. The number for Ohio is 76 percent.