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Fall enrollment at W.Va. public colleges mostly on the decline

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For the first time in years, enrollment at many of the state's public four-year higher education institutions -- including West Virginia University and Marshall University -- is declining.

Meanwhile, enrollment at some of the state's private schools is on the rise. The University of Charleston and West Virginia Wesleyan College are two examples.

Nationally, college enrollment fell this year for the first time since 2006, according to Census Bureau data released last week.

Total enrollment in West Virginia, including public four-year universities and two-year community and technical colleges, decreased by nearly 3 percent from spring 2012 to 2013, according to state Higher Education Policy Commission data.

In addition, preliminary data from individual schools for the current semester shows those numbers are continuing to decrease.

At WVU, about 200 fewer students are attending this semester than those who were enrolled last fall -- a decrease of 0.8 percent.

That's to be expected, said Brenda Thompson, associate vice president for enrollment management and services at WVU.

The university has been intentionally trying to reduce the size of its freshman class as Morgantown becomes more and more populated.

"It causes a lot of stress and strain on the institution, as far as trying to make sure we have efficient courses. Last year and the year before, we had to cut off housing to students, and we never like to be in that position," Thompson said.

Marshall University is looking at a decrease of about 2 percent, according to Matt Turner, the university's chief of staff.

All preliminary data from universities is subject to change until more official numbers can be collected over the next few months.

Enrollment at Fairmont State University, Bluefield State College and West Liberty University also has declined since last year.

At Glenville State College, enrollment hasn't budged. More and more students have been attending the college over recent years, but now Glenville is projecting a flat enrollment, an official said.

After seven years of increased enrollment rates, West Liberty is anticipating a 2 percent decrease, according to preliminary data.

West Liberty President Robin Capehart pointed to a decrease in the number of traditional college-age students and an influx of online learning services that have created more competition. 

"We aren't immune to the current national trend of decline in college enrollments," Capehart said in a statement Tuesday.

In Bluefield State's case, a new policy that requires a higher GPA for transfer students may be a factor in the school's enrollment decline, said spokesman Jim Nelson.

About 100 fewer students are attending Bluefield than they were this time last year.

"We had to make a tough call with regard to transfers because of our student loan default rate," Nelson said. "We're the only four-year commuter institution in the state. So even the price of gas can make an impact."

However, West Virginia State University increased first-time freshmen enrollment by more than 48 percent over that new enrollment a year ago.

Under the new leadership of Brian Hemphill, who began serving as WVSU president a year ago, the school is looking at its first increase in enrollment in three years, with incoming freshman increasing from 291 in 2012 to 432 currently.

"We have done a lot more outreach to let prospective students and their families know about the opportunities available at West Virginia State University," said Katherine McCarthy, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs at WVSU. "We have also hosted a number of events designed to bring students to campus, and we have made great strides in getting financial aid packages out in a timely manner."

The University of Charleston announced Tuesday its highest enrollment since 1974, and Wesleyan is dealing with its largest incoming class in 10 years.

UC took over the now-defunct Mountain State University last December, expanding the private school to campuses in Beckley and Martinsburg, as well as online.

"The university's bold expansion is succeeding," UC President Ed Welch said Tuesday.

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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