Enrollment at Oregon’s Public Universities

by Damon Runberg

December 16, 2020

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 last spring 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. Being in the early recovery phase from a recession we would expect to see enrollment up as unemployment remains high and employment opportunities are fewer than before the pandemic shock. That has not been the case. Across Oregon’s seven universities and numerous campuses full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment was down 3.9% in fall term 2020, around 3,200 fewer full-time students. But, we know that the COVID-19 recession has not been the “typical” recession.

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 these 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 in 2020 with the year-to-date average unemployed (~178,000) roughly the same as levels seen back in 2011. Unlike in the last recession, a 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.
In a normal recession this would be a shocking trend, but not in the bizarre 2020. The COVID-19 recession is being driven by a pandemic shock. The spike in unemployed is 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 have temporarily shifted consumer spending away from typical leisure activities. Temporary being a key element of this demand shock. Once the public health crisis is resolved it is expected that those industries most impacted will largely return to normal. There is no 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. Together these two 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 2011 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, but even the institutions that were trending up saw enrollment slip in fall 2020.

Southern Oregon University posted the largest enrollment declines in 2020, down  about 13% (-520 FTE) from 2019. Other institutions that saw large drops in enrollment included Western Oregon University (-7.7%) and Portland State university (-7.4%). Enrollment losses for the University of Oregon were consistent with the statewide average (-3.8%). A few institutions saw their enrollment little changed in 2020, including Oregon State University (-0.4%), Eastern Oregon University (-0.4%), and Oregon Institute of Technology (-1.0%). The losses at Oregon State University were muted by continued growth of the OSU-Cascades Campus in Bend.
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.

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 percent of total enrollment in 2007 to around 38 percent as of 2020. University of Oregon’s share of non-resident students is the highest in the system, with around 51 percent 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 2029 is largely unchanged from today.

How economic conditions will impact enrollment over the coming years is more of an unknown. Unlike during past recessions, it is expected that Oregon and the nation will recover quite fast after the public health crisis is resolved. Once businesses are able to operate normally and consumers can interact with the economy without concern of COVID-19 we should see many of the jobs lost return. If we do see a fast and robust recovery, then the counter-cyclical enrollment bump universities typically get during recessionary periods is unlikely.


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