Tuesday, November 14, 2006
MONMOUTH -- Western Oregon University saw only a slight increase in student enrollment this fall.
Western's student body totals 4,889, 10 more than last fall, according to fourth-quarter figures released by the Oregon University System (OUS) last week.
It mirrors a trend on other state campuses. Despite a record collective enrollment of more than 81,000 students, Oregon's public institutions showed an overall growth rate of just .1 percent.
"We're disappointed that enrollment grew by such a small amount," said George Pernsteiner, OUS chancellor. "And we're concerned that we're not getting as many freshman out of Oregon high schools."
Flat enrollment levels during the past few years partly stem from reduced financial support and investment in higher education by the state Legislature, he said.
Oregon's seven public universities and associated extension offices received $730 million during the last biennium. Pernsteiner said that allocation accounts for about 16 percent of the schools' operating budgets, with the rest coming from tuition and other sources.
"State and local support in Oregon for colleges students ranks 46th in the country, he said.
"This directly affects university-sponsored programs, services ... that inspire and academically prepare students for college, and support and retain them once they enroll," he also said.
Western President John Minahan said the problem has been more acute in Monmouth than other places.
In 2003, the state instituted a tuition freeze at Western as a penalty for a then-surplus of reserves in its general fund. It was in effect until this year.
The inability to raise rates has cost the college about $1.4 million annually, Minahan said.
The school's revenue is dependent solely on tuition and state allocations. And while the number of students has gradually increased, the resources to pay for the proportionate classes and services has not.
"Unfortunately we had to turn down 100 students this fall who we would have liked to admit," Minahan said. "We're growing in numbers at a time when the tuition level didn't support it.
"You can't offer discount services when the real cost for them is higher than what can be brought in with more" enrollment."
Minahan has said that under optimum funding levels, Western needs to enroll about 5,000 students. There may be a jump in 2007-08, when the Western tuition guarantee and dual enrollment programs with community colleges and Beaverton High School take effect.
A tuition hike of 16 percent will be administered then.
"Next year will be the big test," Minahan said.
While enrollment was flat, there were promising signs in the enrollment data, Minahan said.
Retention of first year students had increased in 2005-06, though not to the 75 percent mark set three years ago.
The average GPA of incoming students rose to 3.26 from 3.19 in 2005, while the number of enrolled students who were ranked in the top 20 percent of their senior class has increased from 178 last year to 205.
The percentage of minority students in the entering class has increased from 9.11 percent to 11.23 percent. Partnerships with universities in China and other countries have boosted Western's international enrollment from 13 students in 2005 to 120 students.
Pernsteiner said he believes overall enrollment in Oregon will rebound if universities can establish better working partnerships with K-12 schools and community colleges.
"We're trying to make it simple for high school and community college students to move through to college," he said.
Pernsteiner said another factor will be if the newly elected Legislature approves a biennial spending package worth $990 million, requested by the State Board of Higher Education this summer.