UT's enrollment decline is a strategic gain


In the past two weeks, two annual, seminal events have occurred in the world of higher education.

First, millions of high school seniors across the nation -- and around the world -- began to complete their search process to determine which college or university they plan to attend next year.

And second, last year's seniors sat down in their college classes for the first time.

This is my favorite time of the academic year. No matter the challenges I face in the moment, for as long as I have worked in higher education, the optimism, energy, and excitement new students bring to campus always has been infectious.

The title of my annual address to the community is "A University Rising."

I hope all of you who can attend that speech this Thursday will walk away with the same spring in your step that the start of the fall semester gives me.

Although the enthusiasm is the same, this year's class of new UT students is a little different.

This class is smaller, and without some context last week's announcement of UT's enrollment numbers might incorrectly contradict the notion of a university on the rise.

Last year, UT's board of trustees and administration agreed on a new strategy aimed at ensuring that the students we enroll are academically prepared for the rigors of a college education.

The result is a bit smaller -- but better prepared -- freshman class.

Our data demonstrate a clear historical pattern: Students who apply for admission late in the summer are among the least likely to return the following year, let alone earn a degree.

So instead of admitting students as late as 15 days after the fall semester began, this year we stopped enrolling students July 31.

Here are a few measures of our strategy's success, from our new class of about 3,200 students:

The number of new full-time students with a high school grade-point average (GPA) of 4.0 or above increased from 22 percent of the class last year to 26 percent.

The College of Engineering welcomed 21 high school valedictorians as new students this semester.

As a percentage of the class, the number of new, full-time students with a high school GPA above 3.5 increased from 48 percent to 52 percent.

Ninety-eight percent of the decline among first-year, full-time students was among those who graduated from high school with a GPA below 3.0.

Our new strategy is not the entire reason for our enrollment decline. We would rather have a larger, stronger class of students than a smaller, stronger one.

But higher education institutions across northwest Ohio are experiencing trends that are cutting enrollment numbers.

The population of 18-year-olds nationally is decreasing. The length and depth of our economic downturn means that many students who return to school to retool their skills during such times have come and gone.

Higher education's ability to adapt to meet the needs of modern society is achingly slow. This is causing students and families, especially during difficult economic times, to question the return on investment of a college degree.

The University of Toledo is working hard to be a leader and to provide innovative, relevant educational experiences for those who enroll.

But the university also has an important balance to maintain.

We have a legal -- and, I would argue, moral -- obligation to offer open enrollment to students looking for a college degree that could dramatically alter their personal, professional, and financial career trajectory.

I've spoken with countless alumni who attribute their success to UT giving them a chance.

At the same time, the university doesn't benefit an underprepared student by accepting him and giving him a bill or loan debt, only to see him leave school before he graduates and feel he has failed.

Our students' increased academic preparedness will benefit their finances and their parents, as we hope they will graduate faster. It benefits the economy, as well-prepared students are more likely to get jobs and excel at them.

And it benefits underprepared students who will look to a community college before they spend money on a university curriculum they're not yet prepared to tackle.

For those who are academically prepared, I firmly believe a college degree remains the best investment you can make.

At UT, we are always ready to adapt our strategies to ensure that our students graduate, find employment, and enjoy success and fulfillment.

Dr. Lloyd A. Jacobs, president of the University of Toledo, will deliver his annual address to the community at 11 a.m. Sept. 13 in Doermann Theatre in University Hall.