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College enrollment declines continue

Sep. 12, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Some public four-year higher education institutions in West Virginia are seeing declines in enrollment, including both Marshall and West Virginia universities.

At Marshall, the decline is looking like 2 percent, said Matt Turner, the university's chief of staff. While exact figures were not immediately available, 2 percent would equate to about 274 students. That would bring the headcount down to 13,441.

And, if 2 percent is the accurate figure, it would be the largest decline in enrollment in more than 15 years, according to data provided by Marshall that dates back to 1997.

It also compounds with two straight years of declining enrollment -- 1.6 percent in 2011 and 1.8 percent 2012. A third straight year follows two years of big jumps -- 1.4 percent in 2009 and 3 percent in 2010. The latter pushed overall enrollment to nearly 14,200 for only the second time in the past 15 years.

Turner said the decline includes about 1.7 percent, or 30 students, among the freshman class.

He characterized the decline as unfortunate but not unexpected, citing the overall economy and a smaller population of high school-age students.

"It's all part of the trends," Turner said. "But we're seeking additional ways to find new markets for this because we have expected a decrease based on the population of West Virginia high school students. We're getting ready to do some more targeted marketing."

In discussing economic factors, Turner said just a few years ago, Marshall's non-resident tuition rate was attractive to many out-of-state students because their in-state rates were higher. However, almost-annual increases by the board of governors of non-resident rates has pushed Marshall near the breaking point, he said.

He said the Marshall INTO venture, which aims to increase the international student population, is one way Marshall officials hope to reverse the trends during the next 10 years. He also cited the schools of Pharmacy and Physical Therapy, both of which are in the midst of their second years. In three years, both should be at full capacity, which could translate into an additional 250 or more students.

The big question is what the numbers will look like in 10 years, because on Monday, officials working on the master plan revealed an expected increase of 3,000 full-time equivalent students. How that translates to an actual headcount is difficult to say, with formulas in play based on the number of credits taken by graduate or undergraduate students.

The associate vice president for Enrollment Management and Services at WVU, Brenda Thompson, said enrollment is down about 200 students, or less than 1 percent. But she said the university tried to reduce the size of its freshman class to ease strain on the school.

"It causes a lot of stress and strain on the institution, as far as trying to make sure we have efficient courses. Last year and the year before, we had to cut off housing to students, and we never like to be in that position," Thompson told a Charleston newspaper.

The Associated Press reports that Bluefield State College and Fairmont State and West Liberty universities are reporting enrollment declines, while Glenville State College is projecting a flat enrollment.

Bluefield State College's enrollment fell by about 100 students, and spokesman Jim Nelson said a new policy requiring a higher grade point average for transfer students could be a factor.

"We had to make a tough call with regard to transfers because of our student loan default rate," Nelson said. "We're the only four-year commuter institution in the state. So even the price of gas can make an impact."

West Liberty President Robin Capehart said that the number of traditional college-age students has decreased while competition from online learning services is growing.

"We aren't immune to the current national trend of decline in college enrollments," Capehart said in a statement Tuesday.

Meanwhile, enrollment has increased at West Virginia State University for the first time in three years. The number of freshman rose from 291 for the 2012 fall semester to 432 for the current fall semester.

"We have done a lot more outreach to let prospective students and their families know about the opportunities available at West Virginia State University," Katherine McCarthy, WVSU vice president for enrollment management and student affairs, told the newspaper. "We have also hosted a number of events designed to bring students to campus, and we have made great strides in getting financial aid packages out in a timely manner."

Enrollment also has increased at several private four-year institutions. On Tuesday, the University of Charleston announced that enrollment was highest since 1974. West Virginia Wesleyan College has reported its largest incoming class in a decade.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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