Decline in spring enrollment puts pressure on YSU’s chief

Given that Youngstown State University’s enrollment has dropped from 15,194 in the fall of 2010 to 12,823 this spring semester, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the open access, urban institution has a problem — if student numbers matter.

Yet, Gary Swegan, YSU’s new associate vice president for enrollment planning, doesn’t seem overly concerned. We will concede that what occurs in higher education rarely reflects the nonacademic world, but spinning a loss into a gain takes some talent.

Here’s how Swegan explained the drop in enrollment of 1 percent from the spring 2013 semester to this semester:

“To start out, we were down 3.13 percent in the fall, and spring typically follows fall very closely, so we might have anticipated another 3 percent drop. That didn’t happen. We’re down just 1.1 percent. In fact, we enrolled a slightly larger group than we planned for in our budget for this semester. We hit our target, plus a little more.”

YSU is also finding comfort in the fact that the graduate student population grew this semester.

So, what are the stakeholders to make of the continuing decline in enrollment?

We would suggest, based on our conversations with the chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, John Carey, and Dr. Gordon Gee, higher education consultant to Gov. John Kasich, that Youngstown State cannot afford to keep losing students.

Ohio’s 13 public universities and colleges are being told that they not only have to become more self-sufficient because state funding for higher education is not going to increase in any significant way, but they also will have to make the case for their existence.

Gee and Carey are expected to release a report this summer on the state’s universities and colleges that will deal with a variety of issues, including enrollment.

Republican Gov. Kasich, like his predecessor, Democrat Ted Strickland, has made increasing the number of Ohioans with college degrees a priority.

Open access institutions such as Youngstown State will be called upon to increase their efforts in attracting students who are first in their families to seek higher education.

Recruitment program

That’s why the enrollment decline this spring matters. It suggests that the university has yet to come up with an effective recruitment program to put the brakes on the downward spiral and begin the rebuilding process.

Given that YSU’s chief enrollment officer, Swegan, has been on the job since November, it is unfair to hold him responsible.

However, it will be fair to judge the vice president’s performance based on this fall semester’s enrollment. If there’s an increase, Swegan will get the credit. But if the numbers continue to decrease, he will be blamed.

In contrast to challenges confronting YSU, Eastern Gateway Community College is celebrating a 10 percent enrollment growth this semester — 2,832 compared with 2,573 last spring.

It is noteworthy that Eastern Gateway began operating in the Mahoning Valley in fall 2009.

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