Polk County Itemizer Observer
By Craig Coleman
MONMOUTH — It’s become old hat at Western Oregon University in recent years to report a record number of students during official fall enrollment assessments.
And while last week’s announcement was no different, even school officials were surprised with the numbers.
The Monmouth university’s student population jumped by 10.2 percent from the same period in 2009 to 6,233, according to a headcount performed during the fourth week of classes.
“It’s a little above what we expected,” said Dave McDonald, associate provost. “We were looking at 6,150 and it came back a little high.
“But it’s good to be popular,” he continued. “We think we offer people a tremendous education and the numbers indicate they agree.”
Enrollment growth at the state’s eight institutions is at an all-time high of 96,960, a 5.9 percent jump from 2009. The largest hike came at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, which saw its enrollment grow by more than 26 percent.
Western’s undergraduate total increased by 443 students, and its graduate numbers by 136. Newly admitted students, freshman and transfers, increased 13.5 percent.
There was also a slight increase in the number of nonresident and international students this year — a crucial piece, as those individuals pay higher tuition and fees than Oregon students.
“As the state has continued to reduce its level of support for public universities, we have come to be more reliant on tuition dollars,” McDonald said. “The only way to avoid raising tuition is by greater enrollment.
“Without the strong international and nonresident numbers, this would be much more challenging.”
Even at 6,233, there’s room for more students at Western. More classroom and living space came online this year. WOU plans to add another 50 living units to its Arbor Park family housing facility next fall.
That said, Western will draw the line on its enrollment capacity if numbers exceed the student/faculty ratio of 25-to-1, McDonald said.
Students of color increased dramatically at WOU from 872 in fall of 2009 to 1,231 this year, according to Oregon University System statistics.
But a different demographic reporting method now required by the National Center for Education Statistics is giving officials fits.
Institutions must use a two-question format when collecting data from students and staff, first asking about ethnicity — is the individual Hispanic, “yes” or “no” — and then requiring that person to select one of six race categories they feel they belong to.
Answering “yes” to the first question, for example, labels you as Hispanic; for federal reporting purposes, your race is not taken into account.
That means increases or declines for some categories may be reporting differences, and not necessarily actual changes, said Bob Kieran, Oregon University System institutional researcher.
This has made analysis somewhat more difficult, McDonald said.
“We know we have a change this year in Latinos on campus from 8 percent to 10 percent of the student body,” he said. “What we don’t know is how much is attributable to regular growth or to reporting.