Freshman and total enrollment at Washington State University declined for a second straight year this fall, mirroring a trend that’s affecting higher education institutions nationwide.

Saichi Oba, vice provost of enrollment management, discussed the fall numbers with the WSU Board of Regents during a work session at Pullman on Thursday morning.

After setting a combined enrollment record of 31,607 in 2019, total enrollment at all WSU campuses dipped slightly last year, to 31,159. It fell another 4.2 percent this fall, to 29,843.

Oba noted that a total of 4,007 freshmen enrolled at the university this fall. That’s a decline of 4.4 percent, or 184 students, from last year.

Total enrollment at the Pullman campus this year was 19,114, including 3,305 incoming freshmen. That’s a decline of 3.9 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively. However, the dip in freshman enrollment was offset by an 8.2 percent increase in transfer students and 19.5 percent increase in graduate enrollment.

Oba attributed much of the decline to the shift to virtual campus visits and virtual freshman orientation sessions that occurred because of the coronavirus pandemic. That approach hasn’t been as effective in convincing students who have already been admitted to WSU to actually enroll.

“Campus visits matter,” he said. “Virtual orientation hasn’t been as welcoming. We need to get students back into (on-site) orientation.”

The university is also exploring options for students to apply for admission at multiple campuses at the same time, rather than having to submit separate application packets for each campus.

In addition, President Kirk Schulz told the board there’s “lots of discussion” about boosting student retention rates, primarily by improving collaboration between student affairs, academic affairs and other operational units.

“We have a lot of great people working all over campus on student retention,” he said. “The passion is there and people are doing excellent work, but sometimes we have two small groups (working on the issue) instead of one large group. We realize we can do better. ... I think the board should expect us to come back over the course of the year and say what we’re doing differently to affect retention in a positive way.”

Oba began the discussion on enrollment by noting that higher education enrollment this spring was down more than 600,000 students nationwide, or about 3.9 percent, compared to a year ago.

That was the largest decrease in a decade, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Undergraduate enrollment this spring was down by 727,000 students nationally, or 4.9 percent. However, almost two-thirds of that was at community colleges. Enrollment at public four-year universities was down an average of 0.6 percent.

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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