Officials at the university have been striving to increase enrollment to 10,000 for years, but the institution has yet to reach that goal.
National statistics show that the number of graduating high school seniors is falling because of demographic trends. At the same time the number of adult students is on the rise and providing what might be JSU’s best chance of reaching its enrollment goal.
“It’s affected our strategy,” Jacksonville State University President Bill Meehan said. “You look at those changes and you design your strategic plan and your vision.”
The institution’s enrollment peaked in the fall of 2010 when 9,504 students enrolled. This year that number fell slightly as the rate of incoming freshman failed to keep up with the pace of last year’s graduating seniors, university officials said. This year, the institution remains about 500 students shy of reaching the 10,000 mark.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 41,010 students are expected to graduate from Alabama high schools this year. That figure is expected to fall slightly next year and then rise steadily to 42,070 in 2018 before declining again until 2021when 39,960 are expected to graduate.
According to the same national figures, officials expect a 1 percent decline in the number of eligible high school graduates between the 2007-08 academic school year and 2020-21. But the overall decline will play out differently in different states.
Twenty-three states are expected to see an increase in the number of prospective high school graduates, while 27 states, including Alabama, are expected to see a decline.
“It’s a concern,” said Andy Greene, JSU’s director of enrollment management. “We know the number of high school students can fluctuate from year to year.”
To increase enrollment despite the shortfall, JSU is diversifying its approach by reaching out to non-traditional students who often take online courses, Meehan said. The institution already has about 3,700 who are taking classes remotely though the Internet.
The university’s strategy is reflective of national trends, said Barmak Nassirian, an official with the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. He said universities across the country, like JSU, have vastly expanded online education programs in the last decade. That allows adults and parents to work toward degrees while holding down full-time jobs and taking care of their children.
It also gives universities like JSU another demographic from which to pull to meet enrollment objectives.
“Better than 60 percent of all enrollments are non-traditional,” Nassirian said. “These are people with families, with jobs, older, more experienced, more-complicated lives.”
The change has also prompted a more commercial pitch from universities such as JSU. Decades ago, institutions recruited almost exclusively by making high school visits and sending out brochures. Rarely would one see a commercial or an advertisement enticing students to a traditional university, Nassirian said.
That trend is reflected at JSU. Today the institution has polished televised commercials, billboards and advertisements on Internet sites such as Pandora.
At JSU, those spots supplement traditional marketing strategies and visits to high schools across the state and region.
Additionally, Nassirian said, universities have begun catering to career-focused adult students. Universities do this by offering more career-specific professions. Nassirian said one example of that would be courses offered in homeland security. JSU recently began offering its first doctorate program in a similar field of study, emergency management.
The changing landscape of collegiate demographics comes as institutions are becoming increasingly dependent on student dollars. Since 2008 JSU has lost roughly $12.6 million in state funding and therefore has drastically increased student tuition.
“It puts more pressure on the students in tuition,” Meehan said. “You’re going to have to come up with money somewhere.”
Star staff writer Laura Johnson:256-235-3544.