COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – There are more than 1 million fewer undergraduate and graduate students at U.S. universities than before the pandemic as enrollment struggles to recover from COVID-19 – a trend rearing its head at many of Ohio’s universities.

An analysis of nine Ohio public four-year universities shows that enrollment is down at most – but not all – universities across the state. Some universities’ numbers suggest a clear correlation between the pandemic and declining enrollment, while other declines began far before COVID-19 existed.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported total postsecondary enrollment is down more than 1.1 million students from 2019 across public and private 2- and 4-year universities in the U.S. Although 2022’s enrollment is down just over half a percent from 2021, which experts say could suggest stabilization, enrollment at public four-year institutions declined at more than twice the total enrollment rate.

Eight of nine Ohio universities analyzed had lower enrollments in fall 2022 than in fall 2019, with the University of Cincinnati boasting an all-time high enrollment in the fall. First-year student enrollment is down at most Ohio universities as well – with only Cincinnati and Ohio University producing new, first-year enrollment boosts.

Total enrollment

Although some Ohio universities saw dips in enrollment after record-high peaks in 2019 or 2020, most Ohio universities’ 2022 enrollments were the bottom of multi-year trends downward, analysis shows.

Nine universities were split between two graphs, shown below, to account for enrollment size differences.

After reaching a record-high of 68,262 students in fall 2019, Ohio State University’s enrollment has fallen 3.6% to 65,795 during the fall 2022 semester. Left relatively unscathed during the beginning years of the pandemic, with only slight declines in 2020 and 2021, Ohio State’s enrollment has fallen by nearly 2,000 students since 2021.

The decrease in overall enrollment is partially intentional. After undergraduate enrollment at the Columbus campus peaked in fall 2021 with 47,106 students, spokesperson Chris Booker previously told NBC4 that Ohio State decided to lower the number of first-year students it accepted.

Bowling Green State University similarly reached record-high enrollment before facing a decline, surpassing 20,000 students in fall 2020. Since then, however, enrollment has fallen lower than before the pandemic, with fall 2022’s enrollment of 18,732 the smallest Bowling Green has been since at least 2015.

For most other Ohio public universities, however, declining enrollment isn’t anything new. Some have seen enrollment numbers fall for years.

At the University of Toledo, enrollment has been trending downward since at least 2016 — but it continues to fall at a faster rate. Fall 2022’s total enrollment was down 8.6% from 2021. In a September 2022 press release, University of Toledo President Gregory Postel lamented the university’s continued shrinkage.

“While a decline in enrollment this fall wasn’t unexpected, it is unsustainable,” Postel said. “Enrollment has been a challenge at UToledo for a number of years. We will continue to think creatively about student recruitment, but we also must reevaluate our operations as a University with 15,000 students rather than the UToledo of the past with 20,000 students.”

Facing similarly significant enrollment decreases is the University of Akron. With a fall 2022 enrollment of just under 15,000, Akron is 27% smaller than it was in 2018.

Enrollment has also fallen since before the pandemic — although not quite as severely — at Kent State University, Ohio University and Youngstown State University. Although 2021 enrollment at Cleveland State University surpassed 2020 numbers, 2022 enrollment is more than 10% down from fall 2018.

New, first-year student enrollment

Like total enrollment, enrollment of new, first-year students has taken a hit at most Ohio public universities — both pandemic-induced and not.

Only the University of Cincinnati has more new, first-year students in 2022 than it did in 2018. In fact, the record-breaking high comes after a recent low — 2021’s class barely broke 7,000. At 8,220 students, Cincinnati’s 2022 new, first-year cohort is more than 10% larger than 2018’s cohort.

Jack Miner, vice provost for enrollment management at Cincinnati, attributed much of the boosted new enrollment to the university’s efforts to grow — the university is aiming toward a goal of 60,000 students by 2030. It also helped, he said, that applications for the cohort were up about 23% from 2021.

“We’ve really been focusing on what our values are — we are absolutely an access institution,” Miner said. “We’ve really focused on creating opportunities for Black students, Latinx students and first-generation students to go to UC at higher numbers, and really trying to target populations of students that didn’t really see college as part of their future before.”

Three other universities saw larger new, first-year cohorts in 2022 than in 2021: Ohio, whose newest class of 5,082 suggests almost a full rebound from a years-low enrollment in 2020 of just more than 4,000; and Bowling Green and Kent State University, which saw small increases over 2021.

Not all universities have a growth mindset for incoming classes. Ohio State, for example, lowered the number of new, first-year students it admitted for fall 2022, even as it had a record-high of more than 71,000 applicants. For others, first-year enrollment has fallen since before the pandemic.

Toledo has taken the largest hit to its new, first-year student cohort. At 1,854 students, 2022’s cohort is nearly 40% smaller than 2018’s. Declining new, first-year enrollment hasn’t hastened, however; Toledo’s largest decrease in new, first-year enrollment happened in 2020.

New, first-year enrollment declined most rapidly in 2020 for Cleveland State and Akron as well, with 2020 classes being 13.1% smaller than in 2021 at both universities.

Of course, enrollment hasn’t declined at every university in the U.S. Although total enrollment took a slight dip — of fewer than 100 — in 2020, at 51,225 students, the University of Michigan is the largest it has ever been. Ohio State, on the other hand, is the smallest it’s been since 2016 — but still 15,000 students bigger than its biggest rival.