Southern Oregon University’s efforts to combat the enrollment effects of rising tuition costs with an increased focus on recruitment and retention appear to be paying off.

SOU saw a slight bump in enrollment this fall compared with fall term 2016 and was one of two Oregon public universities to experience gains in full-time equivalent enrollment. Those figures are considered crucial for universities because, according to an SOU press release, “they indicate enrollment in terms of the credit hours and tuition revenue generated by students.”

The news comes four months after SOU increased its 2017-18 school year tuition by 9 percent, which amounts to $613 annually for a student taking a full 15-credit load.

“We’re not particularly surprised,” SOU Director of Community and Media Relations Joe Mosley said of the enrollment increase. “We had hoped that our numbers would go up this year, but we were planning for the worst-case scenario, we were planning for a decrease and we had budgeted for a decrease because we just didn’t know for sure. But some of the early indications we had, as early as last spring, hinted that we might do pretty well with enrollment this year.”

Mosley said SOU’s entire admissions and enrollment staff deserves credit for the increase, which bucked state and national trends. According to enrollment figures sent to SOU from the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, the school posted gains both in the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) students and total students, with its most prominent gain showing up in its FTE numbers.

SOU’s FTE enrollment increased a little over 2 percent this fall to 4,383 students from 4,293, and the school’s total headcount increased by 0.83 percent to 6,139 from 6,088 a year ago.

Of Oregon’s seven public universities, only SOU and Oregon State University experienced FTE increases over 2016. Oregon State saw a 1.13 percent FTE increase to 26,127 at its main campus in Corvallis, and also enjoyed a 6.3 percent increase (44 students) at its Bend campus. Western Oregon, Oregon Tech, Eastern Oregon, University of Oregon and Portland State all experienced modest dips in their full-time equivalent enrollment, with Eastern Oregon’s 3.1 percent (69 students) decrease representing the largest decline.

“These enrollment figures are a reflection of the upward trajectory SOU is experiencing,” SOU president Linda Schott said in a release. “The trend across the country is for declining college enrollment. We are focused on preparing our students for a changing future, and on providing the knowledge and skills that will help them succeed.

“We are seeing increases this fall in the number of new, first-year students, retention of last year’s first-year students and overall retention of returning students. That indicates our efforts to attract students and provide the services they need are producing results.”

Four schools saw slights jumps in total headcounts, which includes both full- and part-time students. SOU ranked third in that category, with Oregon Tech’s 4.9 percent jump — or 258 students — representing the state’s largest uptick compared with 2016 figures.

Overall, total enrollment in Oregon universities declined in the fall by sixth-tenths of 1 percent, part of a national slide that began four years ago. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a nonprofit research firm, college enrollment in the U.S. fell by 1.4 percent in 2016 and is projected to continue to fall through 2017.

Mosley said the university’s success is multi-pronged. In an effort to buffer tuition hikes, SOU increased its financial aid budget for students in need by $500,000, increasing it to $4 million, and the school stepped up efforts to retain students and introduce those eligible to cost-saving options, such as a three-year Accelerated Baccalaureate Degree Program and a three-year Pledge Program enabling Jackson and Josephine county students to graduate in three years.

“It was an intentional part of our budget creation process this last spring,” Mosely said of SOU’s decision to increase its financial aid budget. “When it was determined we were going to have to have a significant tuition increase, we wanted to make sure we didn’t price anybody out of an education. So we looked at ways to kind of soften the blow for those who could afford it the least and probably the best route was to increase our institutional aid budget.”

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.