Oregon University System may top 100,000 students

Oregon University System may top 100,000 students
Rudy Rolon-Rivas, just completed a four year journey through PCC to earn his associates degree. In September he will start his graphic arts course study at Portland State University. This photograph was taken in front of the University Branford P. Millar Library at Portland State University. (AP Photo/Thomas Boyd - The Oregonian)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — After three years of robust growth, enrollment at Oregon's seven public universities is expected to slow this year, but it still may for the first time top 100,000 students, university officials say.

Increases in first-time freshmen are flattening at state universities, but better retention of enrolled students and an increase in transfer students from community colleges will push the student count higher at most universities when they open next month.

The struggling economy drove a record number of students into community colleges, and some of them are now ready to move on to the state's four-year schools to earn bachelor's degrees. More than half the additional 1,000 or so students expected at Oregon State University will be transfer students, said Kate Peterson, assistant provost for enrollment management.

"There are still not a lot of jobs out there," she said, "so you would expect them to head for the four-year schools."

Among this year's crop of community college transfers is Rudy Rolon-Rivas, 23, of Portland. He just completed a four-year climb to earn his associate's degree from Portland Community College and will start studying full time next month for a bachelor's degree in graphic design at Portland State University.

Rolon-Rivas graduated from Rosemary Anderson High School, a Portland alternative school, and got guidance and support from the school's Transitions program during his years at PCC.

The program provided him a mentor, financial support, even clothes and books as he juggled his studies with a job at a fast-food restaurant. He is the first graduate of the program, which is supported by private foundations, to advance to PSU. The Portland native, who was raised by a single mom, noted he couldn't afford to buy a home or car or raise a family.

"I have nothing in life," he said. "In order to do better in life, I need to go to school. Nothing is happening to me ... and nothing is handed to me. That is why I have been so persistent."

Oregon enrollment is not expected to surge by more than 5 percent as it did last year, when the Oregon University System saw record growth. But the universities may grow enough to gain the 3,000 more students needed to surpass the 100,000 mark when officials take their count four weeks after classes start in October, said Bob Kieran, assistant vice chancellor for research.

"We'll be right around that," he said.

By the end of fall term, the system likely will pick up another 2,000 late registering and transfer students, pushing total enrollment well over the 100,000 mark, he said.

The state's private colleges, many of which are resisting growth, will probably grow at a typical 3 percent to 5 percent as they have for the last two decades, said Gary Andeen, executive director of the Oregon Independent Colleges Association. Last year they enrolled a total 41,600 students.

The Oregon Institute of Technology anticipates no enrollment increase, but the student rolls at the other public universities are expected to climb by about 2 percent at Portland State University, 3 percent to 4 percent at Eastern Oregon, 5 percent to 8 percent at Western Oregon, and 4 percent to 5 percent at Southern, Oregon State and the University of Oregon.

Admissions officials say they expect to draw about the same proportions of students from out of state and other countries. Universities are not seeing big increases in new freshmen partly because the size of this year's high school graduating class was no larger than last year's.

Some universities also took steps to curb growth. Portland State University is pickier about accepting provisional students not quite up to admission standards. The University of Oregon is more selective.

"This won't be our largest freshman class," said Brian Henley, UO director of admissions, "but it is likely to be the most academically prepared and most diverse."

Western Oregon University has focused on drawing Oregon students who do not typically go to college. About 80 percent of its students are from the state.

"We're continuing to have real strength in enrolling more Latino students and staying true to our mission of serving first generation, low-income students," said Dave McDonald, associate provost.

Unlike usual, the universities are gaining more in upper-grade enrollment from transfers and retention than in new freshmen. That could put some financial pressure on universities because junior and senior classes and programs are more expensive, Kieran said.

Enrollment increases have been critical in helping the state's universities offset declines in state financial support in recent years. The Legislature this year gave the university system $722 million in state funding for 2011-12, about 9 percent less than it had in the last biennium.

The universities this fall will raise their tuition an average 7.5 percent for full-time resident undergraduate students to help offset the loss in state funding.

Public universities in California and Washington have seen sharper tuition increases in the wake of state budget cuts, driving some of their students to Oregon. The University of Washington, for example, will raise tuition and fees 20 percent for in-state undergraduates this fall.

While enrollment growth gives universities new revenue, it also can produce new costs if they don't have sufficient faculty or class and dorm space. Enrollment growth, just like the university's physical and economic development, must be sustainable, said Scott Gallagher, spokesman for Portland State University, the state's largest university with about 29,000 students.

"Growth for growth's sake is not positive," he said. "It's not a goal." .

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Information from: The Oregonian