Illustration by Whitney Griffith

President Percy speaks out on declining enrollment

Enrollment decline precedes pandemic: “We’ve been on a downward trajectory”

At a press conference held on Friday, Nov. 18, Portland State Vanguard was presented with the opportunity to speak with President Stephen Percy about the current status of enrollment at Portland State and what steps are being taken to address this challenge. According to him, the decline started years before the pandemic, and was only made worse during the COVID-19 years.


“Portland State for the last 10 years has had diminishing enrollment every year,” President Percy said. “Most years there’s around 1%, maybe 1.5%… prior to that period we grew a lot… and then we’ve been on a downward trajectory. We’ve been able to cover that trajectory in the past years with the state government giving us more money.”


Despite the predicted 1.5% enrollment decline, enrollment was down even further, at 5.3%, which may have been the result of the ongoing pandemic and the economy during that time. Percy also talked about “persistence,” a term that describes a student’s ability to continue their education.


“One area where we declined was at student persistence… there were students who are here one period and then don’t come back the next year,” Percy said. “Last year during the academic year… we saw some decline right then in people not coming back. Again the pandemic’s turning around in all this period. This fall, the persistence which had been going up slightly dropped about 3%… that means we have 3% fewer people enrolled, 3% fewer people making their progress toward their degree, and 3% smaller in terms of generating tuition revenue.”


It seems as though the pandemic had quite a bigger effect on student enrollment than meets the eye, not only creating financial challenges but also affecting their academic performance due to the impromptu shift from in-person classes to entirely online. “We have found evidence that that persistence problem has been more challenging for… first-year students moving into the second year in that early period,” Percy said. “Those folks went through the pandemic and remote learning—they had challenges in their educational achievement just because of the disruption of the pandemic and there are state-level data reports that indicate that students—the Oregon students—came out of the pandemic with lower achievement levels than they had in the past. We’ll be doubling-down and trying to help and support that group of students, we wanna make sure there’s not a small financial issue… we’re trying to use remissions and other things to deal with that and otherwise reach out and support them.”


“The second problem we face with enrollment decline was that we recruited fewer new students than we had been planning to do then,” Percy said. Out of the students that PSU struggled to recruit, transfer students were a significant demographic. “The larger decline… were transfer students,” Percy said.


Despite Portland Community College being the largest community college in the area that students transferred from to PSU, there has been a concerning decline in transfer student enrollment. Percy referred to such institutions as “feeder” schools, and the impact of the pandemic made it difficult for PSU to recruit from them. The community colleges that PSU recruits from were all remote even as PSU was open, making it difficult to do recruitment.


Portfolio analyst Matthew Hull, who was present at the press conference, pointed out how seriously concerning it is that the expected 1.5% enrollment decline turned into 5.3%. Percy replied by pointing to external factors. “Did some students not come back because the job market is better than it’s been in a long time and they feel it’s better to work for a while, or have people been disrupted by the pandemic and their family lives are just challenging to go to school right now?” he said. “It’s not because people weren’t working hard, it’s the world around us.”


Hull also pointed out how other universities are doing better with enrollment. “Our students are much more in the Pell-eligible category that apply and come to Portland State than those institutions,” Percy replied. “We’re proud of that—we’re proud of giving access to people… our students are not necessarily completely like those that are going to the University of Oregon… a lot of students that go to the University of Oregon may have more wealth or more privilege.”


“The flagships and the land grants are doing very well,” Percy said. “The more regional and urban universities which have a different student population, different kind of issues, are finding themselves more challenging in a period when the number of students going to college has been decreasing.”


Percy went on to discuss the state’s role in PSU’s funding and servicing.


“I wish the state would reduce the gap in the amount of per-student funding that the university receives,” Percy said. “We receive two to three thousand less in the state funding formula than the University of Oregon and Oregon State and our tuition is lower than both of those. We don’t wanna raise tuition so high because that hurts the ability of people to go to college… we’re trying to figure out how to make that case that Portland State is worthy of investment because of the unique mission we have and the power we have to transform students’ lives.”


Vanguard also asked about PSU’s long-term goals for increasing enrollment in the coming years.


“We wanna make sure that our marketing campaign demonstrates our unique value proposition… we’re trying to make sure that all of our programs are accessible for people coming in from different parts of the world,” Percy said. “We’re probably looking to see if we can increase the number of first-time students out there in the market, because the transfer population… seems to be declining.”