This weekend, for the first time, the University of Oregon has a #1 seeding in the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s the second time recently that UO has been prominent in national rankings.
A few weeks ago, The Washington Post looked at state universities expanding the proportion of their student body coming from out of state, and paying much higher out-of-state tuition. For state universities, it’s a gushing revenue stream in an increasingly desert-like financial landscape.
By the Post’s calculation, the University of Oregon was #7 in the country in increasing out-of-state enrollment, while the Ducks would still have to win three NCAA games to reach the Elite Eight.
But there was a distinction between the UO and a number of other institutions featured in the Post’s listing.
The University of Alabama, the national leader, took its freshman class from 72 percent Alabamian in 2004 to 36 percent in 2014. But total enrollment also grew from 20,399 to 36,155.
UCLA’s freshman enrollment went from 94 percent Californian to 74 percent. But the difference was entirely covered by increasing the size of the freshman class. The Post reported that UC President Janet Napolitano promised to limit out-of-state enrollment at UCLA and Berkeley, and all UC campuses have pledged to increase their numbers of California students.
At the University of Oregon, the Oregonian proportion of the freshman class dropped from 68 percent in 2004 to 47 percent in 2014. But overall enrollment rose only from 20,399 to 24,181.
So these days, the University of Oregon is a little less of Oregon. For the UO, like other state universities, shifting the enrollment balance more toward out-of-state students is a survival strategy, and it’s hard to criticize unless you can offer a different financial survival strategy. But it does raise some questions – especially for a state that has declared an official goal of 40 percent of its citizens having a four-year degree, which they have to earn somewhere.
Such as, Georgetown University research professor Marguerite Roza wondered to the Post, “Who does that public university belong to anymore?”
In an interview last week, Roza argued, “Part of what matters to citizens is that their kids have access to their state universities. We do need to recognize that people need access.”
Roza even offered a Northwestern illustration, from her previous time at the University of Washington. “The UW, a few years ago, took fewer in-state students. The Legislature had a fit. It was a little game of chicken,” and the Washington legislature blinked and came up with some more money.
Based on experience, it’s hard to see the Oregon legislature responding the same way.
Roger Thompson, vice president for enrollment management at the University of Oregon, agrees, “We’ve grown non-resident students, but we’ve not been growing total enrollment.”
Part of the difficulty, he notes, has been a lack of consistent university leadership, since the UO has had five presidents in the past seven years.
Let Alabama match that.
Now, Thompson explains, new President Michael Schill — after two presidential terms abruptly cut short and two interim presidents – can devise a long-term enrollment strategy. Of course, Thompson notes, “I think he sets about right-sizing the University of Oregon in an environment where the state provides 6 percent of our budget.”
In that situation, of course, the money has to come from somewhere.
Such as California.
Reports Thompson, the current enrollment is 51 percent Oregonian, 10 percent international, 28 percent Californian, and the rest from other states. Like many other state universities across the country, the University of Oregon recruits heavily in California – as Thompson notes, it’s where the students are – but the UO has also quadrupled its enrollment from Texas.
Part of the change is raising institutional profile; a national university should have a national, not to say international, student body. There is also, Thompson points out, a question of supply; Oregon has one of the lowest high school graduation rates in the country, and there’s a demographic dip in eligible high school graduates projected to last the next decade.
And the change in enrollment has contributed to a considerable increase in the high school grade point average of UO’s entering students.
But there’s also the reality, Thompson agrees, that “Most universities are in search of non-residents to backfill legislative spending cuts.”
Which leads us back to Oregon, where decades of higher education spending cuts are now matched to outsized and unfunded higher education ambitions, and the enrollment numbers don’t connect to the hoped-for outcomes.
And our greatest university enrollment asset may be that we’re next to California.
NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/20/16.