Colleges compete for shrinking pool of new freshmen

MARIETTA – Colleges are competing more for students as the number of high school graduates is shrinking in Ohio as the population decreases.

With a projected decrease is 9.8 percent in public high school graduates between 2008 and 2021, all schools could feel the effect.

Schools as large as The Ohio State University or small as Marietta College have strategies in recruiting students.

Locally, Marietta College and Washington State Community College have experienced those declines, and both are adjusting and expanding their outreach to fill classrooms while still giving students the same value for their dollar.

“We’re at the tail end of the baby boom echo, so as you look at high school graduates across the country, it’s all coming down, and the Midwest and Northeast are most impacted,” said Jason Turley, dean of admission at Marietta College.

That tail end shows graphs where high school graduates begin to decline around 2010, as children of baby boomers in school started to diminish.

In Washington County, the population was 61,706 people in 2010, but only 5,665, or just under 10 percent, were made up of 18 to 24-year-olds, usually considered the “traditional college-aged” generation.

Since 2011, Marietta College has experienced a decrease of about 5.8 percent as a result of that baby boom echo reaching an end, and as a result, the college has being doing its best to reach out to nontraditional markets.

“The response we have is to expand our reach and look at new territories,” Turley said. “We look at Texas and Florida because they have the largest population base of that demographic, and just this year we have 60 students accepted from Texas and 50 from Florida.”

Turley said Marietta College, and other universities and colleges, have to work in these difficult times for competition to prove to prospective students that their product is worth it.

“Our job is to help students discover whether this the best choice for them. It’s not just about going to school for four years,” Turley said. “When we recruit students, we want to recruit graduates.”

Highlighting the college’s nationally as well as locally-recognized programs, like its petroleum engineering major, is a big strategy.

“For families, it’s an investment, and they have to see the value to that investment to give them security and comfort to understand that our graduates go on and are successful,” Turley said.

Turley said though Ohio provides 50 percent of Marietta College students, the college has seen growth from historically nontraditional locations, like the Southwest and parts of the East Coast, that has allowed the school to continue to keep a consistent-sized freshman class.

Washington State Community College has seen a 16 percent decrease in enrollment from 2003 to 2012, but Chief Enrollment Officer Amanda Herb said the concern over a decrease in high school graduates makes less of an impact.

“Washington State has seen the high school population and the general population not growing in our area, which makes it challenging, but we’re different because we’re drawing in students from different age groups,” she said. “Because we serve adults and students still in high school, we can draw those groups in to help fill in gaps.”

As far as outreach, Washington State differs in that it relies more heavily on the close community, where recruitment is done in Washington County as well as the surrounding Ohio counties and into West Virginia.

In fall 2013, 74 percent of Washington State’s enrollment came from students under the age of 24.

“We communicate early and often to high school students about the importance of going to college and the affordability we offer,” Herb said. “Even if the number is low, if we can increase the numbers who do attend college, that will increase the numbers overall.”

Herb said to help aid the enrollment struggle, the college also works to break barriers and promote access to as many as possible, with more online programs and fast track programs to allow easy transitions into four-year universities.

The states that will actually see an increase in high school graduates, like Texas and Colorado, have to face an increased pressure to accommodate more students that want to enter college, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which issues reports about higher education predictions.

The trend, however, is the 31 states that will experience declines from 2008 until 2020.