- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

LA GRANDE, Ore. (AP) - Nestled in the heart of the Blue Mountains, the smallest school in Oregon’s public university system would like to become less of a “hidden gem.”

For years, Eastern Oregon University’s remote location and small class sizes have been a selling point, but these days the classes are getting a bit too small for comfort. Falling enrollment numbers have spurred budget cuts at the school, which have taken their toll in staff layoffs and discontinued majors like Geology and Media Arts.

The university is fighting back by boosting recruitment efforts in the hopes of bringing those sorely needed tuition dollars back.

Nyssa Rodriguez, an accounting major from Parma, Idaho, spoke enthusiastically about EOU while guiding a tour of campus. The school is more affordable than Oregon’s larger universities, she said, and the average class size is 21 students.

“I enjoy that since it’s so small I have the interaction with professors,” she said. “It’s more personal. You can go in and speak to them and they know you by name and not just as a number.”

The senior says she loves the university and it’s a great fit for her. But ask her about EOU’s enrollment and financial troubles, and she’ll answer candidly that it’s been a topic of concern among students.

She and Alondra Esquivel, a social welfare major from Medford, both said they hadn’t heard of EOU until partway through their senior year of high school. So they approve of the school’s new focus on marketing itself. Other students aren’t so optimistic.

“People get a cynical view about it and want to leave,” Esquivel said. “I’ve had friends who left because their major was cut.”

Esquivel’s Spanish minor was one of the programs sacrificed in the budget cuts. Like all of the students whose programs were axed, she’s being offered the chance to finish it up. But she has to take all of the remaining classes this year.

Esquivel said she hopes the school’s recruitment efforts work.

“Once people come here, they fall in love with it,” she said. “It’s just knowing about it.”

That was a refrain offered over and over again during a series of interviews with Eastern Oregon University staff and students: The school’s problems are from a lack of visibility, not a lack of quality or value.

Jay Kenton, the university’s interim president, said there is “no question” enrollment is trending downward.

Rising numbers during the Great Recession, which Kenton believes was a bubble caused by unemployed workers seeking more education, spurred the university to hire additional tenured faculty. Now that enrollment is going back down, the university is saddled with those additional hires, forcing the school to make cuts in other areas.

Kenton said like private businesses often do, the university is in the midst of “rebalancing” its expenditures and revenues. But he stated categorically that the school is in no danger of closing, all rumors to the contrary aside.

“We’re a strong and vibrant university,” he said. “Right now things are a little soft but this university has a history of going through cycles and rebounding nicely.”

He outlined the university’s plan for increasing enrollment.

According to Kenton, 55 percent of EOU students are from Oregon’s 10 easternmost counties. Kenton said 23 percent of K-12 students in those counties are Hispanic, but only 7 percent of EOU students are.

“We should be a mirror image of schools in the region,” he said.

Xavier Romano, vice president of student affairs, said school’s new admissions team, which is spending most of its time on the road this semester, is made up of young, bilingual recent graduates of EOU who can tout the university’s multicultural services, new men’s soccer team and international studies program.

“We may be a little late to the party but we have invited ourselves,” Romano said.

He said the university is “reclaiming our back yard” by refocusing on recruitment in Eastern Oregon, southeastern Washington and western Idaho. The school is also looking to renew its once-strong ties to countries in the South Pacific and Alaska.

Kenton said the university has official partnerships with 17 community colleges, more than any other public university in Oregon. He said that will be a plus for recruitment purposes now that the number of transfer students recently surpassed the number of new college students entering the state’s public university system.

Kenton said the school is also developing a Bachelor of Applied Science degree. He described it as a “professional-technical degree” designed for people with an associate’s degree already working in their field. The program would allow them to waive many of the general education requirements that would be required of a first-time student.

“They can come in quickly and get a bachelor’s degree,” Kenton said.

The university is also developing a contract called Eastern Oregon Advantage. As part of the optional program, incoming freshmen would promise to keep a certain grade point average, take a certain number of credits per semester and donate time or money to the university after graduation.

In return, the university would guarantee those students’ tuition would not go up, that they would graduate in four years and that the university would assist them with applying for financial aid and securing a job after graduation.

Kenton hopes EOU’s participation in Eastern Promise, which works to point students as young as fifth graders toward college, will also pay off.

A major component of the program is offering high school students college courses at $10 a credit, potentially saving them thousands in tuition costs. Kenton acknowledged that some students might use those thousands of dollars’ worth of savings to go to a more expensive university. But he said he believes those students will be balanced out by EOU students who wouldn’t have gone to a university at all if it weren’t for Eastern Promise.

“I believe it will give more people the confidence that they can go to school,” Kenton said.

All told, 1,915 high school students enrolled in college-level classes through Eastern Promise in the 2013-14 school year.

One thing Kenton said he wanted to change during his tenure is the fact that EOU’s curriculum is “not necessarily aligned with the needs of the region.” He said the university needs to put more emphasis on agricultural and health programs, both of which will appeal to students looking to start a career with jobs readily available in Eastern Oregon.

He said EOU’s original plan to restore financial balance included cutting the university’s computer science program, but he decided that wasn’t an option after realizing the tech industry could be the “savior of Eastern Oregon.”

Kenton is working with Blue Mountain Community College and Treasure Valley Community college to create classes and majors more in line with the region’s needs.

He said the university’s brand new governing board, which includes local education staples like Hermiston’s Jer Pratton, will help guide the university toward becoming more valuable to Eastern Oregon.

“We have an obligation to this region,” Kenton said.

___

Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info

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