KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Fewer undergraduate students are attending Western Michigan University, and many other universities across the country are also seeing a decrease.

Declines are expected to continue based on population forecasts. The number of WMU undergraduate students this semester is down 8.6% compared with this time last year.

WMU’s Provost Jennifer Bott says the university is not immune from the challenges many schools are facing.

“We’re all competing for a smaller pool of students,” Bott said. “Michigan is projected over the next 15 years to see an 11% decline in the number of high school graduates.”

The university typically sees lower numbers in the spring semester. While the overall freshman population is down 17% compared with the spring semester of 2021, a higher percentage stayed enrolled from this fall into the spring term. 

“Students that we are able to retain in spring are more likely to return the subsequent fall and we saw a two-percentage point increase in our fall to spring retention, putting it at 90% which is really remarkable,” Bott said.

Daniel Hurley, the CEO of The Michigan Association of State Universities, says the pandemic led some students to wait to start college, to go closer to home or to community college or to go straight into the workforce.

“It is the regional universities that are probably seeing the greatest challenges associated with enrollment compared to larger universities, flagships, like the University of Michigan, Michigan State,” Hurley said.

Recruiting people who started college but never finished and bringing in additional students who do not live in Michigan are some ways to keep enrollment numbers higher.

“We are a net in migration state. I think that speaks well of our public universities reputationally. We are also a top ten state historically in terms of international student enrollment,” Hurley said.

The declines are not expected to go away in the near future.

“Looking purely at youth population, we’re looking at a decline solidly into the low to mid 2030s,” Hurley said.

Despite the challenges, WMU has experienced some enrollment increases.

“We saw some important gains for our diverse populations as well, a 9% increase for students who identify as Black or African American and a 7% increase for students who identify as two or more races,” Bott said.

The WMU Foundation received more than half a billion through an anonymous donation this summer.

Much of that money will go to scholarships and could help with enrollment by reducing cost barriers to higher education.