WSU seeing positive trends amid national enrollment challenges

Two WSU Pullman students with iced coffees walking outside.

While many public universities across the country have struggled with enrollment during the pandemic, Washington State University is cautiously optimistic about positive trends it’s seeing ahead of the fall 2022 semester.

The number of first-time Washington residents applying to WSU Pullman is up 5% compared to a year ago, with admissions up about 8%. Similarly, the number of resident first-year students who’ve been offered a spot at WSU systemwide is up about 2.5%.

“We still have several months to go and a lot of work to do,” Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Saichi Oba said. “There are many faculty and staff working hard to bring new Cougs to campus and keep our current Cougs on track to graduate. We’re optimistic given what we’re seeing with in-state applications as well as the fact that our retention rate grew 1% between this and last spring.”

WSU’s current enrollment challenges fit into nationwide trends for public four-year institutions. These universities have lost upwards of 250,000 students, or 3.8%, between fall 2020 and fall 2021. That decline has been even sharper in Washington state, with enrollment dropping 16.9% among public four-year institutions in the past two years. WSU’s fall 2021 enrollment was 29,843, down from 31,607 in fall 2019.

A major driver of that decline is a drop in transfer students due to losses at the community college level.

In response, WSU is increasing its outreach to high school students, expanding on successful programs and initiatives, and making sure that prospective Cougs see all that its campuses have to offer.

One of the most significant positive indicators for WSU recently is interest from international students. More than twice the number of international students have applied to WSU this recruiting cycle, from 317 the previous recruiting cycle to 648, with admissions up about 88% compared to last year.

“International Programs has done an outstanding job. They have their processes and personnel in place to have success recruiting abroad,” Oba said.

One major boost is allowing international students to apply to WSU via the Common App, which allows students to apply to hundreds of colleges using one application. It’s such a popular tool that domestic students have been using it to apply to WSU, something that won’t officially be available until August.

Allowing domestic students to apply via the Common App is one of several steps the university is taking to grow enrollment in the years to come. WSU is teaming up with the Washington Student Achievement Council to help students learn about options for state financial aid earlier in their high school careers.

Washington consistently ranks among the bottom of states in Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion rates, which is key to be eligible for financial aid. As of Jan. 28, less than 30% of Washington 12th graders have completed the FAFSA, down about 6% from this time a year ago, according to a tracker developed by Data Insight Partners.

WSU and WSAC’s goal are to use student data to start conversations with Washington students earlier about post-secondary options.

“One of the biggest challenges is getting more students to use the generous state help that’s out there,” Oba said. “Students have to file a FAFSA to be eligible to receive that financial support and we have to get that message out there earlier and in a bigger way.”

The university is also looking to expand its Cougar Quick Start program, which was pioneered by WSU Vancouver. Ahead of a high school visit, WSU notifies high-achieving students that they could be eligible for on-the-spot admissions if they bring a transcript. What’s been successful for WSU Vancouver recruiters is now being adopted by recruiters for WSU Pullman. A fast-tracked admissions process is also now being used for on-campus visits; Oba added.

The number of prospective students visiting the Pullman campus has rebounded tremendously, with numbers exceeding those seen in the six months prior to the pandemic. From July 2021 to January 2022, more than 3,500 students visited Pullman, compared to 2,187 that visited campus between July 2019 and January 2020.

“WSU has always found success in enrollment once we are able to bring students to our campuses and show them what life as a Coug looks like,” Oba said. “Students who visit one of our campuses are more likely to enroll, and that number is even higher for students who go through orientation programs, so we’ve been very excited to resume guided campuses tours after a long stretch without.”

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