Oregon’s oldest public university is looking for solutions on how to tackle a budget deficit and a continuing fall in enrollment.

Western Oregon University is facing a $2.2 million deficit, according to its budget plan presented in a board of trustees meeting Wednesday.

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This comes as the university faces about a decade of enrollment decline, during which WOU shrank by more than one third. That includes a sharp 11.5% decrease in students this fall compared to last year.

“One of the things that troubles me, coming in here, is we don’t know exactly what happened,” WOU interim president Jay Kenton said Wednesday.

Kenton said one of the factors may be Oregon State University’s continuing growth — OSU’s main campus is about 20 miles away from WOU’s main campus. OSU reported record enrollment this year.

“They are taking students that otherwise would probably go to the regional public universities,” Kenton said.

Western Oregon University is facing a $2.2 million deficit, according to its budget plan presented in a board of trustees meeting Wednesday.

Western Oregon University is facing a $2.2 million deficit, according to its budget plan presented in a board of trustees meeting Wednesday.

Meerah Powell / OPB

OSU vice president of university relations and marketing, Steve Clark, disagrees.

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“OSU does not target students that otherwise would go to other universities,” Clark told OPB. “It is important to note that the lion’s share of OSU’s growth this year is being driven by non-traditional learners looking for online educational learning options in our Ecampus degree programs, and from out-of-state student enrollment, not enrollment destined to Oregon’s regional universities.”

The number of enrolled freshmen and sophomore students at Western has declined more steeply than the number of juniors and seniors, Rob Winningham, WOU provost and vice president for academic affairs, told board members at their Wednesday meeting. That’s mostly due to Western’s efforts to recruit transfer students. But Winningham warned the number of transfer students may decline as well, as community colleges around the state — where many of those students would transfer from — are seeing major enrollment declines during the pandemic.

Interim President Kenton said the university needs to use institutional research to examine trends and get to the bottom of what exactly is causing the enrollment decrease.

Last year, a task force including now-retired WOU president Rex Fuller released a plan laying out various cuts and program eliminations for the university. The university enacted that plan earlier this year, laying off four tenured professors and the equivalent of 11 non-tenured faculty. The cuts meant the elimination of several academic programs including philosophy, anthropology and geography.

Those cuts will save the university about $2 million, but not immediately — as not all layoffs have taken effect.

“The thing that’s really going to save this institution is enrollment growth,” Kenton said. “It’s going to take probably a 16% growth in enrollment to close the budget deficit.”

Kenton said as of Monday, the university has seen a 22% increase in applications for next fall term — in 2022. And it is seeing increases in applications for the upcoming winter and spring terms as well.

Western is currently in the process of searching for a new president. Kenton stepped into the interim position in July, and he will remain there until the presidential search concludes, which is expected next summer at the end of the current school year.

Kenton told the WOU board that now is the time to start thinking about what direction it wants the new president to take the university in. For instance, whether the state’s oldest public university should attempt to draw in new students by focusing on areas like online programming or graduate programs.

In its budget plan, Western is adding multiple positions in hopes of boosting enrollment, including a financial aid navigator and a diversity, equity and inclusion office position.

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