Enrollment at Southern Oregon University is on the upswing as a result of an effort to get students to register before they return to campus in the fall, university officials said.




Registration for continuing students was up 17.2 percent from this time last year, although the gaps will likely lessen as fall term draws near, said Matt Stillman, director of enrollment analysis. He expects overall enrollment to increase one percent by the time the school reports enrollment figures in October.




"This is really the first time in recent history that we've made a very concerted institutional effort to communicate with our potential continuing students and encouraged them to register," Stillman said.




Students have always been able to register for fall classes during the spring term, but this spring, the university made extra efforts to raise numbers. A spirit week included activities such as a long board race and campus-wide barbecue to keep students excited about attending school. Academic advisors were placed in highly visible locations around campus to answer questions during registration, and enrollment staff contacted unregistered students via letter, phone call or e-mail, even before school was out for the summer, to encourage them to register.




Student affairs intern Heidi Hess was "paid to make excuses," she said, thinking up all the reasons students might give for delaying registration, such as working full time or needing childcare. Then she developed a script to dispel their concerns. Working students, for example, are encouraged to consider part-time enrollment or online courses, and students who need childcare are directed to on-campus day care and preschool facilities.




This approach is a change from the past, Hess said.




"It seems like a majority of our efforts are focused on freshmen and out attention to upper division students seems to drop off after that," she said.




After freshman year, the attitude seemed to be "That's great, we'll see you at graduation," she said, "and that can't happen."




Students who register in the spring are more likely to graduate on time because they can get into their required classes, said Jonathan Eldridge, vice president of student affairs. Those at risk of dropping out are also more likely to return in the fall if they register before leaving for the summer, he said.




The university made a similar effort to encourage earlier registration a few years ago, Eldridge said, but it began much later in the summer when numbers were lower than expected.




"It was reactive at that point," he said. "This year, it's very much proactive, and it's designed to ensure that our numbers are up."




The jump in enrollment for continuing students has pushed overall enrollment figures up 12.4 percent from Aug. 2007, Stillman said. Other areas the university tracks, such as new freshmen, transfers, graduate students and non-admitted students are all fairly flat.




The budget for the 2008-09 school year is based on a one percent increase in enrollment over 2007, he said.




"Given what we know at the moment, I think that — percent goal is very realistic, and we might very well exceed it," he said. "I don't think anyone is thinking that we're going to end up 16 percent when all is said and done. There just aren't enough students in the pipeline to support that sort of growth."




The university is also hoping to improve its freshman retention rates, which has increased only fractionally in the past several years, Stillman said. Sixty-six percent of the freshman class in 2006 returned for their sophomore year in the fall of 2007.




"We're certainly happy to see the upward swing, but we fully recognize that we should and could retain more students than we are, and I think we have a good framework now in place to do so," he said.




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