Enrollment at Oregon’s Public Universities

by Damon Runberg

December 3, 2021

Enrollment in higher education is largely counter-cyclical. Enrollment tends to soar during periods of recession and drop during expansions. A historically long economic expansion ended in spring 2020 as both the nation and state of Oregon fell into the COVID-19 pandemic recession driven by public health measures to slow the spread of the disease. As the state of Oregon remains in recovery phase from this pandemic recession we would expect to see enrollment up as unemployment remains above pre-pandemic levels. However, the combination of ongoing COVID-19 concerns and a very tight labor market have not led to the normal counter-cyclical enrollment bump typically seen during recession. Across Oregon’s seven universities and numerous campuses full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment in fall term 2021 was largely unchanged from 2020 (-1%), but remained down 4.8% from fall term 2019.

Enrollment across Oregon’s seven public universities grew rapidly as we entered the last recession in 2008. The increase in enrollment corresponded with a spike in unemployed Oregonians. It is a common pattern for people who lose a job to go back to school during tough economic times in order to receive education and training for a new career. The number of unemployed Oregonians peaked in 2009 and had been declining until the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020. The number of unemployed rose dramatically from around 75,000 Oregonians before the pandemic to over 270,000 in April 2020. Around 150,000 were unemployed by the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, but only around 95,000 by the beginning of this most recent school year. Unlike in previous recessions, this spike in unemployed did not lead to a corresponding increase in enrollment in Oregon’s public universities. In fact, most of the public universities posted sizable drops in enrollment with little improvement this year.
In a normal recession this would be a shocking trend, but not in the bizarre 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years. The COVID-19 recession was driven by a pandemic shock. The spike in unemployed was largely the result of stay-at-home orders, closures, and restrictions on certain types of businesses, such as indoor dining. These restrictions and other public health recommendations temporarily shifted consumer spending away from typical leisure activities. Temporary being a key element of this demand shock. As we have begun to live with the public health crisis those industries most impacted are beginning to return to some semblance of normalcy.

This recession didn’t result in a skills mismatch or structural decline that would drive workers back to school to skill up for a new career. Additionally, many students likely postponed their college enrollment due to concerns over the safety of in-person instruction or concern about the quality of the alternative, online instruction. Prospective students were also likely drawn away from higher education due to the high demand for labor and notable wage gains over the past year. Finally, travel restrictions likely impacted international student enrollment that had been trending up before the pandemic. Together these trends likely explain the atypical drop in enrollment in the midst of a recession.

Enrollment by Institution

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, enrollment had been relatively stable across the whole Oregon University System; however, enrollment trends varied dramatically at individual institutions. Enrollment at most of the state’s institutions trended down since 2012 with the exception of Oregon State University (OSU) and Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT). The pandemic accelerated this trend with large enrollment declines in many of the institutions that were already losing students. The only institutions that saw enrollments gains in 2021 were Oregon State University and University of Oregon. However, it is important to note that the new OSU-Cascades campus in Bend that continues to be built out is counted within the broader OSU figure.

Western Oregon University posted the largest enrollment declines in 2021, down about 12.4% (-470 FTE) from 2020. Other institutions that saw declines in enrollment included Oregon Institute of Technology (-7.0%), Southern Oregon University (-5.4%), Portland State University (-5.2%), and Eastern Oregon University (-3.5%).
Non-resident Enrollment Is Up

One trend that had been helping to keep overall enrollment stable across the university system was growth from non-resident students. Non-resident enrollment for Oregon public universities increased more than 22% between 2011 and 2019. The losses of resident enrollment (-6,535 FTE) were nearly made up by these gains in non-resident enrollment (+5,745 FTE). Enrollment growth from non-residents has been most notable at Oregon State University where there was a 61% increase (+4,315) in FTE over the period between 2011 and 2019.
Non-resident enrollment was down 5% in 2020, the first notable drop in the past decade. In fact, the enrollment loss from non-residents was slightly larger than the drop in resident enrollment. Many of these enrollments losses are likely temporary and tied to the pandemic, as well as a decline in international students attending institutions of higher learning across the United States. In 2021 there was only a modest rebound in non-resident enrollment up just 1.4% from 2020 levels and still remaining 3.7% below pre-COVID levels in 2019.

These non-residents students are important to the state’s higher education institutions as they have helped to stabilize total enrollment while enrollment from Oregonians declines. Additionally, these non-resident students help to fill funding gaps as they pay much higher tuition than residents. The general trend across most of the state’s public universities is for non-residents to make up an increasing share of total enrollment. Across Oregon’s public universities non-resident enrollment rose from around 25% of total enrollment in 2007 to around 39% as of 2021. University of Oregon’s share of non-resident students is the highest in the system, with nearly 52% of FTE enrollment from non-residents.

Demographics and population trends play a major role in college enrollment. However, enrollment trends in the past decade appear to be largely driven by economic conditions. The college-age population (18-24) has grown at a relatively stable and consistent pace the past 15 years. The last time there was a large surge in Oregon’s college-age population was in the late 1990s. Many of the state’s universities managed to expand their FTE enrollment at a faster pace than the college-age population by recruiting these non-resident students, until 2020.

Slow Growth Is Likely in Coming Years

Looking ahead, population trends point to steady, though likely quite slow, enrollment growth for higher education over the next 10 years. The college-age population is expected to grow at a slow pace over the next decade. Portland State University’s population forecast from 2020-2030 estimates the population of young people 15-24 will expand by roughly 4.3%, less than 0.5% annually.

Industry and occupational trends do not point to a need for a dramatic increase in the educational attainment of Oregon’s workforce. Based on the most recent employment projections by the Oregon Employment Department, the share of all jobs in Oregon that will require a bachelor’s degree or higher in the next decade is largely unchanged from today.

How economic conditions will impact enrollment over the coming years is more of an unknown. If we continue to see our fast and robust recovery, then the counter-cyclical enrollment bump universities typically get during recessionary periods is highly unlikely.

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