An influx of California students helped Southern Oregon University maintain steady enrollment this fall despite tough budget cuts last year.




Oregon universities announced Thursday that a record 82,249 students filled their classrooms this fall, a 1.5 percent increase over last year, Oregon University System officials said in a news release.




SOU had a 3.3 percent drop in student headcount, dropping from 5,002 students to 4,836. But Jonathan Eldridge, SOU's vice president of student affairs, said that number is a bit misleading.




"The number reflects a decrease in high school students attending SOU for college credit," he said. "This probably accounts for three quarters of the decrease."




High school students can take classes for college credit under the Advanced Southern Credit program. These seniors are counted along with full-time SOU students, Eldridge said. Taking the high school students out, the drop in headcount is — percent, but the full-time equivalent numbers used to compute state funding are actually slightly up.




"Our actual full-time numbers are up," he added. "We feel good about where we are right now."




Eldridge said this year's freshman retention rate is higher than last year. He added that this year's incoming freshmen have especially high grade-point averages and admission test scores.




"The higher caliber students tend to stay in school and graduate," Eldridge said.




In addition, there was a bump in the number of California students attending SOU under the Western Undergraduate Exchange program, which makes it cheaper for out-of-state students to attend SOU.




"We've seen a significant increase in the number of students coming in from California since it joined the program last year," Eldridge said. "We see this as a good thing."




Eldridge said the university plans to overhaul its marketing approach to draw more Oregon high school seniors to SOU.




"To be honest we have not had the best admissions strategy over the past number of years," he said. "But we are looking to expand and draw students from places such as the coast and southeast Oregon."




The goal will be to emphasize the advantages of a smaller university, such as small class sizes and easier access to faculty, Eldridge said.




"Overall we are feeling good about our actual college enrollment, given the year we went through with the budget cuts," he said.