YSU’s enrollment is not just about the numbers

Sometime next month, Youngstown State University should have a pretty good idea of what freshman enrollment for the fall semester will look like. If early indications hold true, the recent upward trend will continue.

But while the bottom-line number will grab the public’s attention, there’s a question YSU President James P. Tressel and the associate vice president for enrollment planning and management, Gary Swegan, will undoubtedly want to address: How will the new students further YSU’s goal of increasing retention and graduation rates?

The importance of those two critical factors in higher education is evidenced by the fact that the Ohio Board of Regents emphasizes them in allocating state dollars to the state’s 13 public universities and colleges.

The often-stated goal of Republican Gov. John R. Kasich and the Republican-controlled General Assembly is to increase the number of Ohioans with college degrees. Currently, only about a quarter of the state’s residents have graduated from a four-year institution. That figure is below the national average.

It is noteworthy that while Youngs-town State is on the front lines of Ohio’s battle to increase the number of first-in-the-family college students, it isn’t being rewarded through the state formula.

There was a time in the not so distant past when open-admission institutions received additional funding from Columbus to help them cover the costs associated with admitting students who needed special help in dealing with the academic rigors of a university.

In discussing YSU’s enrollment trend with Vindicator reporter Amanda Tonoli, Swegan offered this insight for why the university’s “moderate selectivity” admission policy is important:

“As you get better-prepared students, it would stand to reason that you would be more successful in getting them to the finish line – graduating them.”

The policy, developed by former President Randy Dunn, was implemented for the fall 2014 semester.

As a result, to be admitted, students must have at least a 2.0 grade-point average and at least a 17 score on the ACT test.

Honors program

The success of the “moderate selectivity” policy can be seen in the increased number of freshmen participating in the honors program.

Having more students in the upper echelons of academia bodes well for the university’s goal of boosting retention and graduation rates.

In 2014, there were 94 freshmen students in the honors program out of a total of 1,800 in the first-year class. That number rose to 175 in 2015 and 273 in 2016.

In his interview with The Vindicator’s Tonoli, Swegan predicted there would be 300 freshmen admitted into the honors program out of the anticipated 2,300-student freshman class.

If Swegan’s prediction comes true, YSU would have a total of 900 “scholars” – a number YSU President Tressel would like to increase to 1,000.

There’s a correlation between the moderate selectivity standard and students meeting the challenges of higher education.

“We have a real chance to be at 75 percent retention,” Swegan said. “We are going to be well above where we’ve ever been.” In recent years, the retention rates have been between 72 percent and 73 percent.

As for the overall enrollment, the administration would like to hit the 13,000-student mark this fall – or by the fall of 2018.

That number would represent an increase from the fall of 2016 when YSU had 12,756 students. A year before, enrollment stood at 12,471.

But YSU’s success at guiding its students through to graduation has a down side: As the number with degrees keeps growing, the pressure on the administration to increase enrollment also grows.

This past academic year, 2,387 students graduated – the second-largest yearly total in the institution’s 100-plus-year history.

Thus, hitting the 13,000 mark that Tressel and Swegan have set will depend on the effectiveness of the university’s 60-county recruitment campaign.

The formula that Tressel and Swegan have come up with for attracting academically successful students is undoubtedly working, given the continuing increase in enrollment.

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