Even after the effects of the coronavirus pandemic fade, Portland State University is expecting the state’s largest urban university will continue to shrink for the next five years; although, it is looking to combat falling enrollment next fall with an initiative focused on academic success and getting students back to campus.

“We’re fully aware that PSU has some major challenges, in the fiscal realm and other areas, that we need to deal with,” PSU President Stephen Percy said in a Board of Trustees meeting Thursday.

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Enrollment has a direct correlation with the financial health of Oregon public universities, because fewer students means fewer tuition dollars, but also because enrollment affects state funding.

Neuberger Hall at Portland State University.

Portland State University leaders are grappling with declining enrollment and budget constraints. They hope a new initiative will attract more students to the downtown campus.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission uses a formula to determine how funding will be split between Oregon’s seven public universities every two years. Part of that formula is based on the number of credit hours Oregon resident students complete as well as degree completions — both of which can be tied to enrollment.

Enrollment at PSU has been steadily declining over the past decade, according to data from the university’s Finance & Administration Committee.

This past fall, PSU saw almost the largest decrease among Oregon public universities, at 7.8% — second only to Southern Oregon University, where enrollment plunged more than 15%, according to Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

“We continue on our trend of falling enrollment, and this has actually accelerated this year, and [is] worrisome for next year,” Irving Levin, Chair of PSU’s F&A Committee, said.

In Jan. 2019, PSU had more than 20,200 full-time students, according to data from the F&A committee. A year later, that number had fallen by about 1,000 students. This year, it is expected to drop by another 1,000 students.

According to the F&A Committee, as of earlier this month, applications for freshmen were down by nearly 30% compared to last year.

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That decrease is expected to continue in the upcoming fall, regardless of the potential for students to return to campus more fully for in-person learning.

“The numbers are very concerning for next fall,” Levin said.

Levin said that falling enrollment has also correlated with PSU’s general fund revenue continuing to decline. He said the F&A Committee expects that fund revenue to also continue to decline over the next few years.

“We have looked and continue to look but have found no significant near-term revenue sources that would be meaningfully changing for our financial situation,” Levin said.

The university is considering a 2.5% tuition increase, Levin said, though it is “certainly not written in stone.”

Levin said the committee expects PSU will need to “significantly” pull money this year, and for years to come, from the university’s reserves – which are currently at about $100 million.

Still, PSU is preparing to go all-out for the upcoming fall term in encouraging students to return to the university.

Percy said the university is going to be announcing an initiative next month called Open for Fall Open for All.

The key components of that initiative include continuing to work with local officials to understand ongoing public health guidance, creating a “summer bridge” program for students who may need help catching up to prepare for college courses, and looking into significant discounts on-campus housing in an effort to re-fill PSU’s residence halls.

“We’re confident that the emergence of vaccines and continued caution over the spring will allow PSU to return to our traditional pattern of in-person and online instruction in the fall,” President Percy said. “This is an extremely important message to our incoming students because they want to know they can come back to college; they want to know there is an in-person experience that they can participate in.”

Michele Gamburd, the PSU Faculty Senate’s presiding officer, also said the senate will be considering dropping the GRE test requirement for master’s students at its upcoming February meeting.

“We feel that this will increase access especially to people from underrepresented and underserved communities,” Gamburd said.

She also said the Faculty Senate may consider another resolution as part of the Open for Fall Open for All initiative on temporarily reducing the high school grade point average for the incoming freshman class.

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