Higher education institutions respond to decline in college students.

Central Ohio colleges and universities continue to compete and recruit aggressively, rebranding themselves and adding innovative new programs in an attempt to prove their value to sometimes skeptical students.

It's easy to see why the competitive pace is quickening. A 15-year national growth spurt in high school graduates is over, and 2017 will bring a decline of about 81,000 nationwide.

In Ohio, the trend is well underway. The state finds itself five years into a projected 20-year demographic slide in potential freshmen, which means a decline from about 143,000 in 2011-12 to a projected 110,000 in 2032.

Most public and private colleges here draw primarily from the Midwest and the Northeast, but both regions also are experiencing declines in graduates, according to the report, “Knocking at the College Door,” an updated study by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education with support from the College Board and the ACT.

To many college enrollment managers, Ohio looks like a crowded, volatile market, with more than 50 private, not-for-profit four-year institutions, more than 75 for-profit schools, 14 main campuses for state universities, 28 regional public university campuses and 23 community colleges. On the bright side, the state—and central Ohio especially—offers many choices for students, if they can afford them.

The competition has challenged every institution, and their responses to the demographic headwinds are fairly inventive.

Ohio State University plans $20 million in new scholarships for needy students under a new affordability and excellence program. Another new tactic: unveiling financial aid packages to students in late February or early March—even earlier for second-, third- and fourth-year students—to lock in enrollment.

Ohio Wesleyan University, a traditional liberal arts college, added a business administration major last year and this year added new programs in nutrition, social justice, communications, data analytics and computational neural science. “That's helpful, even if each of those majors brings just 10 additional students,” says Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment. The school is considering new sports, and it hired recruiters in Cleveland and Chicago. The key is to identify what skills and majors are desired by employers and will attract more students, she says.

At Otterbein University, differentiating from Ohio State and other big campuses is imperative. “One of our strategies is understanding how we serve underserved kids and building the right financial aid models for them to be successful,” says Jefferson Blackburn-Smith, vice president for enrollment management. It's called 360-degree support. Otterbein works early with Columbus City Schools students to retain 94 percent of its graduates. “Nobody else is getting that,” he says.

Indiana Wesleyan University, which operates an education center in Hilliard, competes through online degree programs that began in the 1980s. Today's target of opportunity? “You're seeing a lot of proprietary, for-profit institutions scrutinized so heavily that a lot of them are packing up their bags after sanctions and paying fines. Schools in that sector are starting to shrink, having to do teachouts or just closing their doors. So their students are looking for opportunities,” says David Rose, vice president of enrollment and marketing for distributed learning.

At Columbus State Community College, partnerships have been forged with four-year colleges, K-12 schools and regional employers. Quality, affordability and the transferability of credits is the formula, says Rebecca Butler, vice president of enrollment management and student services. “About 76 percent of our students graduate debt-free, and that's a motivator in today's economy.”

The intense competition for students plays out against the backdrop of Ohio's recession-prone economy and a stingy state financial aid system. The state is eking out improvement in college attainment, a key to economic prosperity, but college affordability remains bleak.

In 2011, Ohio adopted the lofty goal of boosting the number of people with college diplomas or two-year certificates from about 35.5 percent to 65 percent by 2025. It's imperative, because an estimated 64 percent of jobs will require college credentials or advanced certificates by 2020. But college attainment had grown to just 38 percent by 2014, the most recently available year, ranking Ohio 36th out of the 50 states.

Lumina, a nonprofit advocate for broader access to higher education, enlisted 26 states to embrace ambitious college attainment goals, including Ohio. But Ohio has not set a goal that is quantifiable and long-term, hasn't identified a way to address gaps between demographic groups, and hasn't adopted laws or a plan to achieve the goal, Lumina concluded last year. Lumina reports 43.2 percent of Ohioans ages 25-64 have at least a two-year degree or high-value post-secondary certificates.

In central Ohio, Lumina reports Franklin County attainment at 45.9 percent with associate's degrees, Fairfield County at 39.1 percent, Pickaway at 25.6 percent, Madison at 25.3 percent and Union at 37.2 percent, based on estimates from the US Census. Only affluent Delaware County at 61.9 percent comes close to the state's 2025 goal.

Many—including the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio, the organization representing the state's nonprofit private colleges—say Ohio lags in part because it has shortchanged student financial-aid programs, which were cut in half during the 2007-09 recession and never restored to levels of more than 20 years ago. In four pre-recession years, Ohio provided an average of more than $186 million a year in aid to college students. In the eight years since, the annual average was $86 million, as the state phased out the Ohio Instructional Grant program and never made up the slack with Ohio College Opportunity Grant funding.

In 2015-16, the average tuition and fees at Ohio's four-year public universities was 11.5 percent higher than the national average, while community college tuition was 14.5 percent higher than the national average, the Higher Education Compact of Greater Cleveland reported last September. Among neighboring states, only Michigan has a higher average tuition.

Together, high tuition and low financial aid put Ohio 45th out of the 50 states in college affordability. That makes even the Ohio Department of Higher Education pessimistic about improvement. “At Ohio's current rate of production, by 2025, almost 2 million Ohioans will lack the postsecondary education or training needed to be competitive in the labor market,” the department says in a recent framing paper.

While demographic trends and public policies threaten some of Ohio's smallest private colleges, enrollment at the state's major universities—Ohio State, Ohio University, the University of Cincinnati and Miami University—has remained steady, thanks to ongoing tuition freezes and sheer size. “It's good to be a big ship in rough waters,” says Keith Gehres, director of outreach and recruitment enrollment services in Ohio State's undergraduate admissions office.

To a great extent, public colleges are sapping a market once held by private colleges. “The swing in the demographics and stagnating household income mean you have a trend where students are choosing public colleges more often than they would have 20 to 30 years ago,” says Ohio Wesleyan's Dileno. “And public colleges are putting a lot more attention into recruiting efforts. They want more students, better students and students from out of state.”

But all schools, regardless of size, ultimately will face demographic obstacles. As the number of high school graduates levels off, the number of white, 18-year-old grads—the largest pool of incoming college students—is in decline, notes Otterbein's Blackburn-Smith. Meanwhile, older students whose families couldn't afford tuition in the past are enrolling. “What that means for universities is we have to learn how to serve a very different population,” he says.

As a result, smaller schools are looking to brand and market themselves differently and escape the shadow of Ohio State University and its near-universal name recognition. Ohio Wesleyan makes its pitch to students who seek “an all-you-can-experience buffet of learning and exploring and creating,” and it touts the slogan, “Home for Hungry Minds.” Otterbein wants to build “a model community of educators, leaders and learners.” At Columbus State, the brand statement is “Beyond Measure,” suggesting that intangibles are even more important than successful numbers.

And at Columbus State, the flexibility of serving non-traditional students and a rapid swing to online course work mean traditional measures of success—first-year enrollment, graduation rates and retention—are less relevant.

“Our enrollment is often counter-cyclical to the economy, and it's that way especially for the adult student market, including adults with some college but not a degree. Or maybe they have degrees and need to get re-tooled for second or third career. Particularly for that market, when the economy is good, we see a slight decrease in that market,” Butler says.

Some students get associate's degrees or certificates in academic areas, and many are moving on to four-year colleges—100to 120 a year at Otterbein each fall and 60 more in the spring.

Mike Mahoney is a freelance writer.