Budget cuts in California's higher education system have helped Southern Oregon University push winter enrollment to new highs.

Budget cuts in California's higher education system have helped Southern Oregon University push winter enrollment to new highs.

SOU reports a student head count of 5,644, the highest winter term enrollment ever — second only to fall 1999 — and a 2.8 percent increase over winter 2009.

Capped enrollment and planned tuition hikes of 30 percent at state universities in California helped raise enrollment of Californians at SOU to 574, also the highest ever for winter term, said Mark Bottorff, SOU director of admissions.

SOU's full-time equivalent enrollment climbed to 4,095, a 3.3 percent increase over winter last year and the highest in six years.

"We're very excited to have numbers so high, some in categories that we haven't seen setting records," said Jonathan Eldridge, SOU vice president for student affairs.

The school took in 47 new graduate students, the most ever for winter term. It has a record 1,093 non-admitted students (those not pursuing degrees). It enrolled 114 new transfer students and 206 new students, the most of any term, in both categories, since 2001.

"You can't ignore the significant and exciting increase of students from Northern California," said Bottorff, adding universities throughout California are not admitting new students because of budget problems.

The high number of transfer students, up 24 percent from last year, said Eldridge, "is a testament to California not accepting transfer students and also SOU's work with regional community colleges, developing more and more articulation agreements, so students know their courses will transfer and they won't have to retake general ed courses."

The trend of California transfers should continue, Eldridge added, noting that most of them come from the Bay Area northward.

"We're becoming a better option," he said. "Californians used to have lots of options, but now we're rising to the top of the list. We're already getting inquiries from Californians for the fall — and few of our majors are at capacity, so we can accommodate them."

The influx, he noted, will help SOU's long-troubled revenue picture without taking seats away from Oregon students.

"They spend money in Oregon and then most of them stay here after college and contribute to our tax rolls," he said.

Through recent years of deep budget cuts and enrollment drops, SOU has tried to keep out-of-state tuition at 1.5 times in-state levels, making it only slightly more expensive than California resident tuition — a gap that can be readily filled with financial aid, noted Eldridge.

"We've tried to hold tuition as low as possible and, for most, the difference is becoming more and more negligible," he said.

The increase in new graduate students is spurred not only by the down economy — in which workers want to upgrade skills and degrees for better times — but because SOU, working with Rogue Community College, has made classes more flexible by putting them online and offering them at the Higher Education Center in Medford.

"Workers are seeing they're far less likely to be out of work with a four-year degree. They're doing the math," said Bottorff.

"It's so flexible now. It's easier to engage the workforce and they can still keep their jobs," he said. "In times like these, they're going back to retool, complete degrees and get a new angle of attack for when (new career opportunities) become available."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.