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SOU enrollment declines 5.3 percent

ASHLAND — Southern Oregon University recorded the largest enrollment drop this fall of any of the state's seven higher education institutions, but its president says that may be more a reflection on past successes than on current failures.

SOU President Mary Cullinan noted that the university's 5.3 percent drop comes on the heels of its two largest-ever graduating classes.

"That's part of the story," she said Thursday. "We're making up for the loss of those big classes."

Figures released by the Oregon University System earlier that day showed SOU's fall enrollment had dropped by 341 students, putting the student population at 6,140.

For the university system as a whole, enrollment hit an all-time high of slightly more than 103,000 students, a 1.7 percent increase. Oregon State University's Corvallis campus showed the biggest increase, with 1,532 new students, while Klamath Falls-based Oregon Institute of Technology saw a 413-student increase. OIT's increase was pushed by its new campus in Wilsonville, which began admitting students in the fall of 2012.

SOU's enrollment drop comes as Cullinan has announced her intention to undertake a restructuring of the university's offerings. The "retrenchment" process would allow her to reconfigure or eliminate SOU academic programs and faculty positions.

In a meeting with the Mail Tribune, Cullinan said the drop in students also reflects regional economic realities. As the economy slowly improves, more students are taking jobs rather than enrolling in classes. At the same time, continued tuition increases make it harder for those who do want to attend college to be able to afford it.

"Over 70 percent of our students get some kind of financial aid," she said. "They are struggling."

Tuition increases have hit students hard across the state as universities try to make up for diminished state funding. For a full-time student at SOU, tuition has essentially doubled since 1999, climbing from $3,198 per academic year to $6,399. In that time period, SOU has seen a decline of $13 million in state support while enrolling 1,000 more students.

Some of the drop in SOU enrollment came from a decline in returning students. After several years of improving retention rates, SOU saw a small decline over the past year.

Cullinan said despite the declines, there are reasons to be optimistic. A new North Campus dormitory is a hit with students, she said, and a college visitation day held last week for high school students set a record for the largest turnout. The enrollment marked the fourth consecutive year exceeding 6,000 students after two decades of numbers in the 5,000-student range.

The school also is developing new programs, such as the successful Emerging Media and Digital Arts program, which Cullinan said are geared "to a different generation of students."

Reach Mail Tribune editor Bob Hunter by email at bhunter@mailtribune.com.