Cuyahoga County Community College, Metro campus, 2900 Community College Ave.
Cuyahoga County Community College, Metro campus, 2900 Community College Ave. Credit: Jeff Haynes / Signal Cleveland

The success of a college and the city in which it sits are closely linked. Higher education impacts many things, from how civically involved residents are to health and life expectancies. Degrees can mean higher incomes as well as changing economic trajectories. And there are the economic benefits that institutions bring to the places they call home. 

In turn, the majority of institutions depend on tuition dollars. Success isn’t just measured in enrollments, of course, but that’s a vital metric.

Enrollments were already being affected by various factors, such as the changing demographics of Ohio, when the pandemic hit. The COVID-19 era, which has disproportionately impacted women and people of color, amplified challenges and contributed to the continuing enrollment roller coaster. Regional trends often mirrored what was happening on a national level during the past two years.  

Take a look at how things are shaking out at Cleveland’s three largest institutions: four-year private Case Western Reserve University, four-year public Cleveland State University, and two-year public Cuyahoga Community College.

Case Western Reserve University:  +0.5 percent

Total enrollment of undergraduate, graduate and professional (those enrolled in programs that directly align with careers, like law or medicine) students – rose about 0.5 percent to 12,201 for the fall 2022 semester, up from fall 2021’s 12,142 students and up roughly 6 percent from fall 2020’s 11,465 students. 

1,553: The number of first-year students who enrolled this fall. The size of that incoming class was “intentional,” according to officials, who said the university aimed for 1,550 students. Compare that to the 1,606 first-year students who enrolled in 2021 and the 1,357 who began at CWRU in fall 2019. 

92.8 percent: Almost all of the students in CWRU’s 2021 cohort came back for their second year on campus. That’s higher than the national average. One recent estimate put the overall retention rate for private four-year institutions at 81 percent.

Cleveland State University: -5.5 percent

The decline in overall enrollment this semester compared to a year ago, according to publicly available figures. Total enrollment dropped to 14,579 for fall 2022, lower than 15,434 in fall 2021 and 15,331 in fall 2020. 

1,687: First-year student enrollment fell 8 percent to 1,687 students this fall, compared to the 1,834 students who started in fall 2021 and the 1,752 who began in fall 2020. Pre-pandemic numbers were higher. For example, 1,943 freshmen enrolled in 2019 – 13 percent higher than this semester. 

17 percent: While the number of graduate students is down from last year, the 4,157 students taking grad classes now represent a 17 percent jump from the 3,439 who enrolled in fall 2019.

The demographics of the university’s graduate students have changed over time, too. About 40 percent are non-U.S. citizens, a 30 percent increase in three years. 

The university’s expansive growth plan, introduced by former president Harlan Sands in 2021, included a push for “CSU Global.” It’s a collaboration between the institution and Shorelight, a company that bills itself as a “leading international student marketplace in the United States” driving student enrollment.

Cuyahoga Community College: -10 percent

That’s the decline in the college’s total enrollment this fall compared to a year ago. The number fell to 15,764 students, compared to 2021’s 17,523 and 2020’s 18,754. 

1,297: The number of recent high school graduates enrolling at Tri-C this fall has taken a steep hit – nearly 24 percent  – since 1,699 students attended straight from high school in 2019. 

6 percent: There have been some areas of growth. The college’s non-credit offerings have increased about 6 percent since last year. Angela Johnson, Tri-C’s vice president of access and completion, said this speaks to the flexibility people want in terms of “time, focus and credentials” to enter the labor market more quickly, especially for high-demand jobs. 

Male students are especially interested in these non-credit options, Johnson said. That’s a different story compared to the college’s overall for-credit male enrollment, which declined to 5,970 students this fall, down from 6,583 at the same time in 2021 and 10,263 in 2019. 

$18: A recent listing for a delivery station warehouse assistant at Amazon advertised pay rates of up to $18 an hour. 

“The workforce is now our competition,” Johnson said. 

Higher Education Reporter (she/her)
Amy, who’s worked in both local and national newsrooms for nearly a decade, previously covered higher education at Crain's Cleveland Business in partnership with the national nonprofit news organization Open Campus. A first-generation college graduate, Amy is committed to highlighting the voices of students in her coverage.