CINCINNATI – Despite a dip in the population of high school graduates, University of Cincinnati has drawn its all-time largest enrollment this fall.
The official number won't be tallied for weeks, but UC projects total enrollment to reach 43,600 students, up nearly 1,000 students compared to last year and 9,200 more than 10 years ago.
Projected enrollment is up in most categories, including:
• Main campus enrollment, up 944 students
• Total undergraduates, up 684
• Graduate/professional students, up 410 students
• Online degree enrollment, up 342 students
The students are more than seat fillers, too, with first-year students averaging a 25.5 on the ACT, up 0.4 points compared to 2013. The number of National Merit scholars surged to 48 compared to 35 in 2013.
Retention of second-year students is projected to climb to 87 percent compared to 85 percent last year, continuing a 10-year trend that started with 78 percent retention in 2004.
In an interview with WCPO, UC president Santa Ono said the university's success is coming from multiple efforts.
"We're now marketing the university very aggressively," noting widespread advertisements, including a video that welcomes travelers exiting terminals at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.
Last year, UC began accepting The Common Application, a standardized first-year form accepted by member institutions around the country, which also boosted numbers.
UC's decision several years ago to hire a regional recruiter based in Chicago has doubled Chicagoland enrollment to 40, said Caroline Miller, senior associate vice president for enrollment. Plans are in the works to hire a regional director for the northern Virginia, Washington and Maryland area and other spots where the higher cost of living makes UC's tuition attractive.
"We're looking at markets that we think will be good feeds for UC," she said.
But the main factor behind increased enrollment, Miller said, is the decision by Ohio families with money to choose UC over more expensive options.
"Good publics are increasingly a magnet for in-state students with options. When we look at our growth, it's almost all from middle class and upper-middle class families who elect to come here instead of private institutions," she said.
Enrollment is slightly below the goal in the five-year plan to reach 43,871 students, due primarily to UC Clermont's enrollment being off 200 students, Miller said.
The count at two-year colleges is down generally, attributed to a stronger economy in which prospective associate degree candidates opt for work over going back to school for more training.
The generally positive enrollment report was tempered by a projected dip in African-American enrollment to 3,500 from 3,531 despite the university's stated emphasis on increasing diversity.
"After four years of increases, it may just be a little blip that we are working hard to reverse," Miller said.
Ono expressed concern about the drop in African-Americans. "We can do better in terms of building a pipeline from Cincinnati Public Schools. That's an area where we have worked very hard… but I do think there is still a lot of growth opportunity," he said.
"We as an institution need to help our city school district get better," Miler said, "so that more of those students are in fact college ready. That would be No. 1 on our list."
A dip in the population of high school graduates will continue for about seven years, leaving a smaller pool of prospective students for UC to compete for, but the university has set a goal of growing enrollment to 47,000 in 2017.
"This is going to be tough slogging for the next seven years. That's just a function of birth rates," Miller said.
UC is responding to swelling ranks of students with more than $108 million in new and renovated building construction. The board approved buying bonds to finance several major projects:
• The 450-bed Scioto Hall on the main campus is going to follow in the footsteps of its companion Morgan Hall near Martin Luther King Jr. Drive with $35 million renovation. Its outdated brick façade will be stripped away and replaced with blue glass. The interior will be gutted and outfitted with new electricity, plumbing, drywall and furniture.
• Immediately south of Scioto, UC will build a new "midrise" building that will include a dining hall, residential and office space on the site of the razed Sawyer Hall. The board approved design money for the building, and Mary Beth McGrew, university architect, said the construction cost will be determined later.
• Wherry Hall, built in 1959, will be razed due to serious structural problems and replaced by a new building in 2018 that will house the College of Allied Health Sciences offices, classrooms and laboratories, a project expected to cost $46 million to $50 million to build
• Across campus, the Health Professions Building, a 1916 gem designed by Samuel Hannaford, will undergo a $27 million renovation for its occupants, which houses many health and medical programs.
Ono said UC's recent success boosting enrollment and the scores of its incoming students is building upon itself with more students taking an interest in the university.
"We're going against the tide. Many people expected all Ohio schools to go down in enrollment, but we're going up," he said.