CORVALLIS - A bumper crop of new students and a major push toward improving retention rates have combined to boost Oregon State University's fall term enrollment to an estimated 14,127 students, an increase of about 2.5 percent over last year.

It is the first enrollment increase the university has experienced since 1990-91.

"The people at this university have really made an effort to reach out to new and current students and it is beginning to pay off," said Andy Hashimoto, associate provost for academic affairs at OSU. "But we can't rest on our laurels. This next year is just as important, as is the year after that.

"We've got a lot more work to do," he added.

The increase of more than 300 students is particularly significant to Oregon State because last year's enrollment of 13,784 students was a 30-year low. The university failed to reach its enrollment target goal set by the Oregon State System of Higher Education, and received $6 million less in its annual budget as a consequence.

OSU President Paul Risser launched a university-wide campaign that had two goals: to recruit more new students, and to help its current students continue to progress toward a degree.

The university hired a new marketing director, revamped its recruitment publications, and expanded its visitation schedule to Pacific Northwest high schools. Risser, himself, attended many of those functions and his visibility played a role in OSU's success, Hashimoto said.

"When a high school student shows up at an informational meeting and ends up talking to the president of the university, it makes an impression," Hashimoto said. "It also lets everyone know how seriously the president is in addressing recruitment and retention. The entire university community, including those faculty and staff located off campus, helped in the student recruitment effort."

Part of the enrollment boost was due to a 9 percent increase in freshmen attending OSU this fall. Enrollment is increasing for both in-state and out-of-state students.

Retention also has become a campus priority at Oregon State. Though OSU's numbers are better than the national average, far too many students still drop out, officials say.

"Studies have shown that the best way to retain your students is to have them 'connect' when they get to campus - not just with other students, but with a faculty member," said Leslie Davis Burns, director of undergraduate academic programs.

"It can really make a difference in helping students feel comfortable, especially in those first few months," she said.

OSU began a series of retention efforts two years ago that first raised awareness of the issue among faculty and staff. Those efforts culminated this fall in a new program called "OSU Connect" for all new students. In addition to orientation activities, the program introduced freshmen and transfers to current OSU students and faculty, organized river rafting and canoe trips among other recreational activities, and brought them together for barbecues and picnics.

The welcoming of new students to campus is continuing through the OSU Odyssey classes held throughout the academic year.

The university's efforts appear to be paying off.

This fall, the university's overall retention of students who had been enrolled the previous spring increased from 84 percent to 87 percent. Likewise, the retention rates for the freshmen, sophomore, junior and senior classes all showed an increase.

"Particularly noteworthy was our freshmen retention rate, which went from 75 percent last year to 80 percent this year," Hashimoto said. "It is a tribute to all university personnel who worked with first-year students, from classroom instructors, to academic advisers, to the staff working in residence halls."

OSU's highest enrollment was 17,689 students in fall term of the 1980-81 academic year. The university has set a target of 16,000 students as its ideal "campus-based" enrollment, Hashimoto said.

The estimated enrollment figure of 14,126 for this fall does not include students participating in the OSU Statewide distance learning program, officials say.

The Oregon State System of Higher Education will release official enrollment figures later this month.

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Andy Hashimoto, 541-737-0732