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Enrollment In Oregon Universities Increases

Oregon’s public universities are growing again, after years of nearly flat enrollment. That’s according to official numbers released Thursday.

The Oregon University System saw its largest one-year enrollment increase in four years. Officials say those numbers come before campuses have felt the full impact from increases in funding last summer. And it suggests that even more students could be on the way.

But as Rob Manning reports, the news isn’t equally good on every campus.

The one and a half percent uptick is the biggest rise in public university enrollment in the state since 2003.

Portland State added more than 700 students to bring its total to just shy of 25,000. Oregon State added nearly 400 students to inch closer to the 20,000 student milestone.

The big numbers follow a legislative session, in which higher ed advocates left with big smiles for the first time in years.

Bob Kieran directs the Oregon University System’s institutional research. He says the enrollment story is not tied to higher funding; at least not yet.

Bob Keiran: “When I look at the numbers now, I don’t see a strong impact this fall, from that, but we expect we will by next fall. In other words, a lot of students already made their decisions by the time the state made a stronger commitment to us for this fall. So the growth this fall looks good, because I think the big impact from the state commitment will be next year, and the years after that.”   

The story is not as good at the state’s regional universities.

At Eastern Oregon University, enrollment is basically flat – though that’s better than the decline that some officials anticipated.

At Southern Oregon, enrollment dropped – on paper – but officials there say it’s a technicality related to the timing of the count, not the actual number of students. Southern administrators say their enrollment, too is basically flat.

Tamara Henderson is a Southern Oregon grad, and the director of the Oregon Student Association. She says regional universities have suffered more from state funding cuts. But she says they could stand to gain more, from recent increases in state financial aid.

Tamara Henderson: “I do believe that there is still that myth out there that college is unaffordable, and therefore it’s unlikely and unattainable for most students in rural communities to attend. A lot of folks in rural communities are first-generation students, and they don’t have that ‘this is an expection, this a birth right, this is something I’m going to do.’ The other piece of this is that regional universities bring in smaller amounts of funding.”

One regional university took a dramatic step last year that appears to be paying off already. Western Oregon University saw an increase of almost 150 students this fall after some tough years.

Associate provost, Dave McDonald, says Western’s recent commitment to keep students' tuition the same for all four years was at the center of the turnaround.

Dave McDonald: “For the new students, I think it had a tremendous impact. It allowed the university about everything we did well here – the tuition promise is just one aspect, the small classes, individual attention, other things – were really part and parcel with what the tuition promise provided.”

But, McDonald says Western is different from the other regional schools, because its Monmouth campus is in the middle of the more densely populated Willamette Valley.

University leaders say they are prioritizing regional universities like Eastern and Southern, and the recent numbers are a sign things are already moving in the right direction.

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