University looks to innovate amid persistent enrollment challenges
PULLMAN, Wash. – Washington State University saw its total enrollment drop 7.7% compared to last fall. This decline comes as the university grapples with lingering effects of the global pandemic, a sharp reduction in the number of students attending community college, the strong job market, and other persistent challenges affecting universities across the country.
WSU’s fall 2022 systemwide enrollment stands at 27,539, a decrease of 2,304 students compared to last fall. It’s the third consecutive year total enrollment has dipped at WSU, as the university deals with the challenge of bringing in enough new students to replace the record incoming classes in the years prior to the pandemic.
Enrollment data presented to members of the WSU Board of Regents Academic and Student Affairs Committee on Thursday did include several encouraging results:
- WSU Pullman saw its number of new first-year students increase for the first time in four years, rising from 3,305 last fall to 3,324 this semester.
- WSU Global reported an increase in new first-year and transfer students compared to fall 2021, contributing to an undergraduate enrollment increase of 127 students, a 5.2% gain.
- WSU Vancouver welcomed 105 new graduate students, a 6.1% increase over last fall.
- The number of students enrolled in medical professional and certificate programs at WSU Spokane increased by 12 students, or 3.9%.
- WSU also saw modest gains among new first-year and transfer students of color, international students, and first-generation university students.
“While across the nation higher education faces significant enrollment challenges, at WSU we have retained 80% of the more than 6,300 students who started in the fall of 2021. All of our campuses are working together to attract, retain, and ultimately graduate the next generations of Cougs,” said WSU Provost and Executive Vice President Elizabeth Chilton.
Moving forward, WSU is keenly focused on initiatives that will grow student enrollment in the years to come, Saichi Oba, vice provost for enrollment management, told regents during his presentation on enrollment trends. He also provided context on the challenges facing higher education overall, noting that there are 1.3 million fewer college students today than there were prior to the pandemic.
“We understand the challenge that’s ahead of us, and we will meet that challenge,” Oba said.
To ease the application process for future students, WSU recently opened up the Common App for domestic students, which allows them to apply to hundreds of schools with one universal application. WSU opened the Common App to international students last academic year, which generated more than twice the number of applications than the year prior to its implementation.
WSU will also be focused on increasing the number of transfer students bound to its campuses, a problem exacerbated by dramatic declines among regional community colleges that traditionally matriculate a large number of students to WSU campuses. WSU has several efforts underway to attract more transfer students, including onsite admissions at regional universities and employing transfer specialists at community colleges in western Washington.
WSU is also developing a comprehensive website as well as on-campus events and experiences specifically geared toward prospective transfer students.
Four system-wide enrollment management goals were outlined during Thursday’s committee meeting:
- Improve access and affordability by removing systemic barriers, prioritizing equity, and create a community of belonging
- Build and implement student support programming and services to ensure students persist and graduate in a timely fashion
- Optimize enrollment numbers to meet the future needs of the institution and its student communities
- Further collaboration within the WSU system to create flexible, innovative and cost-effective solutions to enrollment challenges
Enrollment challenges and opportunities are somewhat different for each campus. Fall 2022 enrollment levels for each of the WSU system’s six campuses based on the standard annual 10-day headcount are as follows:
While total enrollment at WSU Pullman declined from 19,114 in the fall of 2021 to 17,827 this fall, the number of new first-year students is up to 3,324, a 0.6% increase.
After five consecutive years of growth, WSU Global’s total enrollment dipped from 4,069 last fall to 3,839 this fall, a 5.7% decline. Positive trends were observed among new first-year and transfer students, contributing to a total undergraduate enrollment increase of 5.2%, from 2,462 students last fall to 2,589 this fall.
Total enrollment at WSU Vancouver dipped from 3,233 students last fall to 2,833 this fall, a decline of 12.4%. Much of that was the result of a 23.5% decline in new transfers, a loss of 107 students. The number of new first-year students dropped by just 28, or 6.7%.
WSU Tri-Cities experienced an 8.2% drop in total enrollment between fall 2021 and fall 2022, from 1,558 to 1,430 students. Its new first year and transfer students declined by 7.7% and 1.8%, respectively. WSU Tri-Cities continues to serve a very diverse population of 50% students of color and 46% first-generation students.
Driven by a 28.8% drop in new transfer students, WSU Spokane saw its total enrollment fall from 1,625 to 1,424, or 12.4%, compared to a year ago. It did see its total number of students pursuing medical career certifications and degrees increase from 308 to 320 students.
While WSU Everett did see its new first-year student total increase by a few students, a significant drop in new transfer students pushed it to a total enrollment decline of 23.8%, from 244 students last fall to 186 this fall.
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