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4-year public college freshmen enrollment drops 9%; retention stays up

enrollment numbers

About 10,300 first-time freshmen are enrolled in West Virginia’s public four-year colleges this fall — a decrease of about 9 percent from last fall and down 5 percent from five years ago — according to numbers released Friday.

About 6,000 undergraduates who are 25 or older — called “adult” students — are enrolled in these colleges, a drop of 7 percent from last fall and 28 percent from five years ago.

Looking at raw numbers of students, called headcount enrollment, these colleges have about 62,700 total students this fall, down 3 percent from last fall and 4 percent from five years ago.

If you exclude high school students taking “dual enrollment” classes, which are provided by colleges for credit, headcount enrollment is 57,300 this fall, down 4 percent from last fall and 9 percent from five years ago.

The statewide enrollment of these high-schoolers has more than doubled over the past five years, reaching 5,400 this fall.

“Across the system those numbers have generally been increasing,” said Chris Treadway, senior director of research and policy for the state Higher Education Policy Commission. He presented the figures to the HEPC board Friday.

Statewide “full-time equivalent” enrollment dropped to 55,100 this fall, down 4 percent from last fall and 6 percent from five years ago.

Full-time equivalency is a way to compare colleges’ enrollment to one another and over time by accounting for the fact they have these high school, part-time and full-time students. The full-time equivalency calculation counts 15 credit hours being taken as one FTE student, Treadway said.

“Most of our institutions, including our flagship university, have negative numbers,” noted HEPC board Chairman Michael Farrell.

Treadway said four-year college enrollment has been relatively “stagnant” nationally for several years now.

“I think one of the contributors to the decline in enrollment is the fact that high school enrollment ... has been relatively stagnant for the last several years,” he said.

The number of public and private West Virginia high school graduates is projected to reach a 10-year low around 2023, according to figures he cited from the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Treadway said he thinks college affordability also is playing a factor, but he didn’t have survey data on the exact causes of the enrollment decline.

He noted the simultaneous falling percentage of high schoolers who go on to pursue a degree the fall after graduation at either a two-year or four-year college. The most recent percentage he put on this “college-going rate” was 55 percent, about the same as five years ago.

But Treadway noted student retention rates have been ticking up. The rate of first-time, full-time freshmen retained by their schools to the following fall is now above 70 percent.

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