OSU Enrollment 01 (copy)

Oregon State University students walk and bike through the Corvallis campus on Southwest Jefferson Way on a recent Tuesday morning. OSU’s fall enrollment dropped  by about 1.9 percent on the main campus this fall. 

How much should we be worried about the continuing decline in enrollment in Oregon's universities and community colleges? 

Is the drop in enrollment across the state a function of the economic recovery as potential students opt for jobs in the workforce instead? Is it driven by enrollment trends in the state's high schools, which have not kept pace with the overall growth in Oregon's population? Could the price of tuition be discouraging potential students?

Or maybe it's confirmation of what a state education official told me recently: "Oregon doesn't have a strategy for any kind of education that seems to be working."

The answer likely is that all of those factors, and more, are at work. But these are trends that legislators and state officials need to be carefully watching and analyzing.

The numbers tell much of the story: Total university enrollment at Oregon's public institutions is at its lowest point since 2012. And the number of Oregon resident students is at its lowest point since 2008. 

Oregon State University is the only state public university where enrollment rose, and that's thanks to increases at its Cascades branch campus in Bend and from its online "Ecampus" offerings. Enrollment at OSU's Bend campus grew to 1,259, a 4.6 percent increase over a year ago. OSU officials also reported 6,565 students enrolled in its Ecampus, an increase of 478 students, 7.9 percent. All told, OSU reported 32,011 students enrolled in 2018's fall term.

Enrollment at OSU's Corvallis campus, a closely watched number in the mid-valley, actually declined, dropping to 24,290 students. That's a drop of 470 students, about 1.9 percent, and marks the first decline in Corvallis campus enrollment since 1996. It's a far cry from the explosive growth the Corvallis campus experienced from 2008 to 2013 and it has implications for the mid-valley. But we'll have to return to those another day.

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Overall, though, OSU was the outlier among the state's public universities and colleges: All of the state's other universities and colleges reported declines in enrollment this fall. 

Officials at the state's four-year institutions say they're losing potential students to community colleges, and that likely is true. But, overall, enrollment at the state's community colleges also declined, with 11 of the 17 colleges reporting drops. The largest community college in the state, Portland Community College, reported a 4 percent enrollment drop. (Linn-Benton Community College officials say that overall enrollment there appears to be slightly down, by 1 percent, but noted that the drop appears to be mostly in precollege programs, so the decline may be a matter of timing. But they add that enrollment in career and technical education programs has boomed, by some 10 percent.)

State education officials also say the state's high schools are turning out fewer graduates, and they may have a point there: The number of high school students in the state, according to numbers from the Oregon Department of Education, has grown by just 1.2 percent since the 2009-10 school year, a number that lags considerably behind the state's 8.1 percent population growth in the same time period.

And another trend is brewing as well: The number of Oregon resident students attending the state's public universities is at its lowest point since 2008. Over the same time period, the number of out-of-state students has nearly doubled, but that growth appears to be slowing in recent years, which could have budgetary repercussions for the schools, which charge more for out-of-state students. (And the number of international students at Oregon State University and Portland State University declined this year, dropping 4 percent at OSU and 8 percent at PSU, which experienced an overall 3 percent drop in enrollment.)

Top all of that off with Oregon's anemic high school graduation rate of 77 percent (improving a bit, to be sure, but still the third-lowest rate in the nation) and you have clear signs of trouble brewing — especially in a state that still stands by its so-called 40-40-20 educational goal. You recall that goal: It calls for all Oregon adults to have a high school diploma or its equivalent by 2025. In addition, the goal says, 40 percent of adults will hold a four-year degree and another 40 percent will have a two-year degree or its equivalent. (So "40-40-20" is misleading nomenclature; it should be "100-40-40.")

Regardless of what you call it, though, Oregon is struggling to reach that aspirational goal: It's been hard to hit the 100 percent part. Now it looks as if we're facing additional barriers to make progress on those postsecondary goals as well. (mm)

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Mike McInally is the editor of the Albany Democrat-Herald and the Corvallis Gazette-Times. You can contact him at mike.mcinally@lee.net