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There are 2.4 million fewer college students in the United States than there were just six years ago, meaning institutions have to work much harder to fill seats.

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.

Related: Placement rates, other data colleges provide consumers are often alternative facts

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.

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Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education correspondent for...

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3 Letters

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  1. The “non-partisan”, Public Agenda shares a funder with Hechinger Report (Gates). In my view, a companion article to this one was posted recently at Public Agenda, “Confidence in Higher Ed. is Waning”. The combined dire warning is, “It can not be business as usual.” If the motivation is to aid the success of Gates’ ambitious scheme, the Frontier Set program (NYT, June 7, 2017), it wouldn’t be the first time in recent history that a crisis was manufactured to benefit business. Frontier Set creates a business model for university “collaboration on course development and delivery”. (Bill Gates is an investor in the largest for-profit seller of schools-in-a-box).
    The following is this same article data, described, IMO, without steering it in the intended causal direction. “Six years ago, enrollment peaked at an all-time high, 20.4 mil. It is now 18 mil. with a possible uptick in 6 years. Approx. 70% of college faculty are part-time. The instructional expense can easily be adjusted downward to accommodate declines in enrollment.
    The impact of wealth concentration is being felt in education. Last year, the richest 1% shifted $4 tril. from the nation to themselves. When less is available for the 99%, college demand like demand for all goods and services suffers. Compounding the problem, the Koch’s have starved the common good, which includes education, of funding.”

  2. I feel an unseen issue especially for male students and greatly clouded and ignored by our system which presently sees only the genetics model of effort, will miss a very big variable for male students entering college. I feel even with the best of care in bringing in students, many male students will be totally unprepared for college work due to socially created lags in their development and accumulation of skills over time. The belief boys should be strong is still given boys from infancy to make them tough, although it having devastating effects upon male achievement, especially in the lower socioeconomic areas. Even in nice, middle class areas, this mistreatment is causing boys to fall behind collectively from their middle class female peers. 1. The aggressive treatment given boys from infancy by parents, teachers, peers, others is creating (from correct definition of average stress) many more maintained layers of conscious/subconscious mental work which take up real mental energy, leaving less mental energy for new mental work. This hurts learning/motivation; creates more activity for stress relief; higher muscle tension which hurts handwriting/motivation; and social/emotional distance/fear of adults lowering social vocabulary open expressions necessary to gain communication skills. They are also not given kind, stable, verbal interaction which causes lags in maturity and also lowers social vocabulary/communication skills, also possibly creating significant communication deficits with adults/teachers. The total effect hurts reading and writing, which require low average stress and high social vocabulary/syntax skills. This creates slow but growing deficits in academics, and declining motivation, less hope for change and improvement, especially with our genetics models firmly in place. Also boys are given love/honor only on condition of achievement. When a boy if failing, he is given more ridicule and discipline to make him try harder. Support is not given for fear of coddling and false belief in genetics. This will create many failing boys; some boys who will act out feelings of competence, although hiding true deficits; and a very few boys who may manage to do well but must keep succeeding to keep earning love and honor from those academics. I fear unless we change the way we treat our boys and also unless we remove our current, false, genetics models, we will slowly create more female colleges with fewer and fewer boys able to perform adequately. Much more and many applications from learning theory (using new definition of average stress).

  3. People are fed up of paying good money or borrowing money to send kids to liberal indoctrination centers which is what college has become.

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