Enrollment at Oregon’s Public Universities

by Damon Runberg

May 2, 2019

Enrollment in higher education is largely counter-cyclical. Enrollment tends to soar during periods of recession and drop during expansions. Nationally, and here in Oregon, we are in the midst of a historically long economic expansion with many economists agreeing we are at or near “full employment.” Based on where we are in the business cycle we would expect to see enrollment down as employment opportunities abound and unemployment is very low. That has not been the case. Collective enrollment across Oregon’s public university system has been largely flat since 2011. However, this doesn’t mean that the public university system is entirely kicking the counter-cyclical label.

Enrollment across Oregon’s eight 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 common 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 has been declining rapidly since. In fact, there are significantly fewer unemployed Oregonians today than at the peak of the last expansion in 2006 and 2007. Although the employment outcomes for Oregonians are nearly as good as ever, enrollment in Oregon’s public universities remains near peak levels.
Enrollment by Institution

Enrollment has been relatively stable across the whole Oregon University System, however enrollment trends vary dramatically at individual institutions. In fact, enrollment is down for all of Oregon’s universities since 2011, except Oregon State University (OSU) and Oregon Institute of Technology (OIT). The largest declines have been at Eastern (-25%) and Western (-16%) Oregon universities. Two of the state’s larger institutions, University of Oregon (UO) and Portland State University (PSU), have also seen enrollment losses, with each dropping by 6 percent in the past seven years. The enrollment growth from OSU and OIT have helped to keep overall enrollment across the state’s university system largely flat.
Non-resident Enrollment Is Up

One trend helping to keep overall enrollment stable across the university system is growth from non-resident students. There was a 22 percent increase in non-resident enrollment for Oregon public universities between 2011 and 2018. The losses of resident enrollment (-5,940 FTE) were nearly made up by gains in non-resident enrollment (+5,650 FTE). Enrollment growth from non-residents has been most notable at Oregon State University where there was a 54 percent increase (+3,850) in FTE over the past seven years.
Enrollment growth from non-residents is an intentional strategy by Oregon’s public universities. According to Steve Clark, Vice President of University Relations and Marketing at Oregon State University, these non-resident students are helping to stabilize total enrollment as enrollment from Oregonians declines. Additionally, these non-resident students help to fill the funding gap 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 2018. 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. The decline in FTE enrollment among Oregon residents is countering growth in the college-age population, which has grown by around 0.5 percent for each of the last five years.
Slow Growth Is Likely in Coming Years

Looking ahead, population trends and economic projections all 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. The Oregon Office of Economic Analysis estimates that the state’s 18 to 24 year old population will only increase by around 2.4 percent by 2029, significantly slower than the growth over the past decade (+4.4%).

Industry and occupational trends do not point to a need for a dramatic increase in the educational attainment of Oregon’s workforce. The share of jobs in Oregon that require a higher education degree of any kind is expected to maintain its current levels going forward. 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 2027 (30.5%) is largely unchanged from today (29.8%).

A stable share of jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree and relatively slow growth in the college-age population point towards long-term stability in enrollment from Oregon residents. Taking out cyclical business cycle trends we would expect to see higher education enrollment track closely with these population forecasts, roughly a 2 percent to 3 percent increase in enrollment from Oregon residents over the next decade. Despite non-residents making up a larger share of total enrollment over the past decade, this trend will likely slow as many universities approach a self-imposed soft cap on non-resident students as a share of total undergraduate enrollment.


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