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DELAWARE, Ohio — Behind the deceptive quiet of a small college campus in the summer, things are buzzing at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Faculty at the 175-year-old liberal-arts school, which has about 1,700 undergraduates, are preparing new majors in high-demand fields including data analytics and computational neuroscience. Admissions officers are back from scouting out prospective students in China, India and Pakistan. Recruiters have been on the road closer to home, too, in Cleveland and Chicago. In the athletics department, work is under way to add two sports and a marching band.
More money has been put into financial aid, the process of transferring to the college is being streamlined, and the ink is still wet on contracts with Carnegie-Mellon University and a medical school to speed Ohio Wesleyan students more quickly to graduate degrees. The number of internships is being expanded, along with short-term study-abroad opportunities. The university is considering freezing, lowering or slowing the rate of increase of its tuition and fees, which are now $44,690.
All of these changes are a response to a crisis few outside higher education even know exists: a sharp drop in the number of customers bound for small private, nonprofit colleges like this in particular, and also some public universities and other higher-education institutions.
“Ground Zero turns out pretty much to be Delaware, Ohio, in the heart of Ohio,” where the college is located, said Warren, a former president of Ohio Wesleyan. “To their credit, they’re looking it straight in the eye and dealing with it.”
To see what appeals most to students, Ohio Wesleyan studies data about the 15 percent of admitted applicants who choose to enroll — and those who don’t.
Among other things, this revealed that one group of prospects attracted to the college was dropping faster than others: males. That’s a reason Ohio Wesleyan is adding more sports and making room on junior-varsity teams.
The data also showed that students wanted internships and international study. Both have been expanded. Visitors are invited to use a high-tech interactive touchscreen in one newly renovated building to see the places around the world where undergraduates are studying and serving in internships, from San Francisco investment firms to the Mayo Clinic.
The college also uses labor statistics to see what fields are in greatest demand, then tailors new programs to this. “It doesn’t do us any good to add a new major if they can’t get a job,” said Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment.
“We live in a really consumer-driven society, and to be honest a college is an investment,” said Ohio Wesleyan’s president, Rock Jones. “Families are much more discerning, and they approach it as consumers. That’s a cultural shift to which the campus has to respond.”
One of the greatest challenges, as at other places, has been to get buy-in from the faculty, who have to approve new academic offerings. Ohio Wesleyan invited faculty on the curriculum committee to meet with the financial-aid committee, giving them a sense of how serious the problems were and asking them for help in coming up with majors that might attract more students.
This doesn’t always work. One faculty member suggested a new major in sacred music, for example. “Some faculty have a very clear understanding of the issues,” Jones said wryly. “Others, less so.”
There are early, albeit modest, indications this is working. Dileno said the new majors attracted about 10 additional students this year, out of the roughly 440 freshmen the university typically enrolls.
There’s another important sign of change, said Crockett: growing recognition of the problem.
He tells of speaking about the enrollment crisis to faculty and administrators at a private college.
“And a guy comes up to me afterward who had been scowling at me the whole time,” Crockett recalled. “And he said, ‘I’m a chemist and I focus on my discipline and I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what the industry I work in was going through.’”
*An earlier version of this story misidentified this institution as Concordia College.