‘It’s more than just the pandemic.’ College admissions continue to decline in Ohio, Ky.

Keith BieryGolick
Cincinnati Enquirer
Students walk inside the Lindner College of Business on the University of Cincinnati campus in this photo from August 2021.

Fewer students are going to college than ever before. In Ohio, Kentucky and elsewhere. The New York Times recently called it the “enrollment crisis.” It might be a reckoning

Spring enrollment data show this downward trend has continued even as pandemic restrictions across the country have largely been lifted. 

But while universities locally and nationally lost students during the pandemic, the University of Cincinnati continued to grow.

In the fall of 2019, the university received 22,907 student applications. That number increased in 2020, 2021 and 2022, ultimately reaching an estimated 27,230 student applications for this fall, according to officials. UC's enrollment at the main campus grew as well. 

Ohio colleges lose more students than Kentucky schools

Nationally, undergraduate enrollment has dropped by nearly 1.4 million, or about 9 percent, since 2020. 

Ohio lost close to 26,000 students last year and almost 47,000 since 2020, according to enrollment data gathered by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Kentucky lost about 2,000 students last year and about 7,000 since 2020.

Ohio’s enrollment decline was the 13th highest in the nation. States that saw increases did so because of primarily online institutions based there, according to the research center. An Enquirer analysis of enrollment data in Greater Cincinnati confirms what experts are seeing nationally, with a few exceptions. 

“COVID hit higher education really hard,” said Jack Miner, UC's vice provost for enrollment management. “Harder than other sectors.” 

Miner’s job could be simplified like this: Get more students enrolled at UC. It’s not an easy job although he says say the success of the Bengals and Bearcats football teams has helped. 

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The Cincinnati region is growing, Miner said, and the university wants to match that growth. It set a goal of reaching 60,000 students by 2030. Miner touted UC’s cooperative education programs as a reason for success. Those programs allow students to alternate between academic semesters and semesters of full-time work in their career field. 

In the fall of 2019, 39,263 students enrolled at UC's main campus. In the fall of 2021, 40,281 students enrolled there. 

University of Cincinnati students graduate at a ceremony this spring. A record number of students graduated.

Elsewhere, Northern Kentucky University and Xavier University’s enrollment grew from the fall of 2019 to the fall of 2020, but regressed in the fall of 2021. Miami University’s enrollment grew from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, but still has not returned to the number of students before the pandemic.  

Questions about the ‘value of college’

What does this all mean? It means we could be at a turning point in higher education. Like in other walks of life, the pandemic exposed and exacerbated problems that were already there. 

Over the past two decades, college tuition has increased more than any other good or service besides hospital care. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests college costs have increased 169 percent since 1980, while earnings for workers between the ages of 22 and 27 have increased by only 19 percent. 

“That suggests it’s more than just the pandemic to me,” Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, told journalists during a conference call last week.

“It suggests that there’s a broader question about the value of college and particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns.” 

College tuition still increased this year, but not as much as it had previously. 

“The higher education industry has broadly not kept up with meeting the demands of an evolving learner population,” said Amrit Ahluwalia, director of strategic insights at Modern Campus, an engagement company focused on improving the college experience for students.   

“Students overwhelmingly enroll in higher education to identify pathways to successful careers. But very few schools clearly outline the career outcomes that different programs will lead to.” 

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Community colleges across the country, which largely admit everyone who applies, have been hit harder than four-year institutions. In the Cincinnati region, they have held up OK. Since 2019, Cincinnati State Technical and Community College’s enrollment is up, while Sinclair Community College and Gateway Community and Technical College are slightly down.

Gateway President Fernando Figueroa said the population his college serves was greatly affected by COVID-19. These are students, many of whom have children, who often struggle with housing, food insecurity and childcare. 

"We were really on an upswing," Figueroa said of the college's enrollment numbers before the pandemic.

As more and more students debate whether college is worth it, Figueroa is hopeful these students consider different paths to continue their education. Paths that don't always need to result in four-year degrees. 

What the Enquirer analysis of enrollment data shows 

The Enquirer analyzed enrollment data and surveyed colleges and universities around the region. Here is what we found.

  • Miami University: The university’s total enrollment in the fall of 2021 increased from the year before but was otherwise lower than it has been before 2017. The university accepted 6,000 more first-time students in 2021 than it did in 2017, even though about 500 fewer students ultimately enrolled. 
  • Xavier University: The number of students increased from 6,993 in 2019 to 7,112 in 2020. That decreased to 6,651 in 2021. 
  • Northern Kentucky University: Total enrollment rose in 2020 to 16,212 and then fell to 15,944 the next year. Undergraduate enrollment for this fall, while not final, is currently lower than last year.
  • Cincinnati State: The number of applicants has declined at a higher rate than enrollment, which increased in the fall of 2021. The college’s most recent enrollment numbers are higher than they were in the fall of 2017.
  • Gateway: The college reached a peak in applications and enrollment in 2019, both of which have tailed off. University officials say spring numbers, which increased slightly from 2021, show signs of potential recovery. 
  • Sinclair: The college declined from 14,194 registered students during the 2020-21 year to 11,663 during the 21-22 school year. 
  • Thomas More University: In 2019, the Catholic university in Edgewood enrolled 419 new full-time students. This year, that number is expected to be around 450. 
  • Mount St. Joseph University: Officials say first-time enrollment increased 13% from fall 2020 to fall 2021.