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  • Chrissy Ewald, Staff Writer

Strong enrollment continues at Willamette, bucking state and national trends

Photo by Jason Lehman

In a positive sign for continued growth, Willamette welcomed 567 new students to campus this fall. Strong enrollment carried over from last year, when Willamette welcomed its largest incoming class in seven years, and the impact of this influx of students is being felt across campus. Lines are long at the Bistro and Goudy, parking is scarce, first-years are living in Kaneko A Wing for the second year in a row and the library is full of students studying for midterms.

“We feel really good about the new class,” said Sue Corner, dean of admissions at Willamette. “We basically met our enrollment goals and exceeded them in some ways. We certainly exceeded them in terms of transfer students.”

Willamette welcomed 506 traditional students and 61 transfers for a total of 567 new students. Traditional students were slightly below the goal of 525, but the 61 transfer students exceeded the goal of 35, placing the total number of incoming students higher than the combined goal of 560.

Though these numbers may seem large, Corner said classes between 525 and 550 are on target for Willamette’s enrollment goals. The large student population has put stress on housing, which has been reduced in recent years by the closures of all of Willamette’s on-campus Greek housing and the 2016 closure of an off-campus apartment complex called Haseldorf. Though there is enough on-campus housing for all first-years and sophomores, Corner said the university will likely have to bring some buildings back into use or build more housing to meet demand in the coming years.

Willamette was able to meet its overall admission goals in part because of a large class of incoming transfer students. Transfer students are important to increasing the diversity of the student body, but can be difficult to actively recruit. About half of Willamette’s transfer students come from local community colleges and the other half from four-year schools.

Willamette’s success in attracting transfer students is hard to attribute, but the Office of Admissions has a new transfer coordinator, Ryann Wegrzyn, and is pushing to keep up the trend. “Transfers are such an important population, and we’re trying to actually be a little more transfer friendly and look for the right students to transfer to Willamette,” said Corner.

Transfer students are also typically more diverse than first-time college students. Overall, Willamette’s freshman class is more racially diverse and has more first-in-family students than in the past two years.

Willamette’s economic diversity has increased as well. According to the New York Times College Access Index, Willamette has had an 8% increase in first-years receiving Pell grants compared to 2011. Comparatively, Reed College had a 7% drop and Lewis & Clark had a 1% drop.

Corner said the Office of Admissions is very encouraged by these numbers and is seeking to continue to recruit diverse students, despite the end of affirmative action.

Willamette did not use affirmative action policies before last year’s SCOTUS ruling, but some admissions programs will be affected. In previous years, the Access to Excellence Program (A2E), which pays for prospective students and a parent to fly in for Bearcat Days, was marketed specifically at underrepresented students, especially students of color, Pell-eligible students, and first-in-family students. The program now has to be marketed to everyone. The admissions office will see this year whether the change in marketing affects which students take advantage of the program, or whether its intention of benefitting underrepresented students remains clear.

2023 Cardinal and Gold event. Photo by Jason Lehman

While the Board of Trustees never gave the admissions office goals for racial, economic, gender or first-generation diversity, Corner said the office does internally seek to recruit diverse students and will continue to do so by working with organizations that help underrepresented students connect with college admissions offices.

Corner said the Office of Admissions is also watching the university’s gender ratio. Like colleges across the country, especially other liberal arts institutions, Willamette has an increasingly low male-to-female ratio. While a skewed gender ratio isn’t in itself a problem, Corner said she doesn’t want any group of students to feel like Willamette is not for them. “When you see a decline, you think, what’s happening with the guys that they might not think they fit in here?” she said.

Overall enrollment at Oregon colleges and universities is a mixed bag. Some are recovering well from the pandemic, while others, particularly community colleges, are still struggling to get numbers back to healthy levels. Corner said there are several factors behind Willamette’s current success. Record-breaking alumni giving is increasing the amount of scholarships the school can give, which is lowering the financial barrier for prospective students. The Office of Admissions itself has low staff turnover, which Corner said is key to establishing trusting relationships with high school college counselors.

However, the most important but perhaps least tangible factor Corner named for increased admissions is momentum. “I think we have momentum with a really positive reputation out there among schools and counselors and the people who kind of influence students,” she said. “They see Willamette as the right fit for a broad range of students. We’re welcoming, we’re friendly, we have a better faculty than so many other places. That, I think, we’re doing that right.”

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