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Growing Through the Great Contraction


Santa J. Ono

University of Cincinnati


​Despite the demographic and geographic odds stacked against us, including lower birthrates and fewer high school graduates within Ohio, the University of Cincinnati (UC) has enrolled more and better students over the past decade, outperforming both our peer group and own projections. So how did we do it?

First, the fast facts: This fall we welcomed 43,691 students to campus, compared with 34,364 just 10 years ago. What makes this 27 percent surge even more impressive is the quality of the student body. This fall we welcomed 48 National Merit Scholars to campus—up from 19 in 2005. Other gains during this decade include a 9 percent increase in the retention rate and a 17 percent increase in the graduation rate. Average ACT and SAT scores, high school GPAs, and class rankings are also on the rise.


The story of our enrollment success starts with our strategy for academic excellence: Think less Eiffel Tower and more New York City skyline. Along with our College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning and our College-Conservatory of Music, which rank among the best in the world, we have 50 programs ranked in the top 50 by U.S. News & World Report. This breadth of excellence across the institution—driven by a top-notch faculty fully committed to our dual missions of teaching and research—has enabled us to widen our enrollment base. Time and again, students and parents tell us that having the opportunity to matriculate in a top-ranked program was the primary driver behind their decision to attend UC.


In addition to being affordable, a UC education can offer a real-time return on investment. As the inventor of co-op education—combining classroom-based instruction with practical work experience—UC perennially boasts one of the best such programs in the world. Many of our students spend at least one semester working for a company, gaining real-world experience as well as developing leads on future career opportunities. And did I mention that their co-op earnings topped $49 million last year alone? Understandably, many students and parents are drawn to the real-world value and resource-positive results associated with this arrangement.


It is difficult to overestimate the role our physical campus plays in the enrollment equation. In the 1990s, then president Joseph A. Steger had the bold vision to launch one of the most ambitious campus master plans in America, with more than $2 billion in new construction projects. With signature buildings by world-renowned architects such as Frank Gehry and Michael Graves, as well as amazing green spaces, UC has been ranked by Forbes magazine and others as one of the most beautiful campuses in the world.


Our urban location is key, too. With a population surpassing 2 million, Cincinnati is a diverse, culturally rich, and economically relevant hub within the Midwest. The city has nine Fortune 500 companies, a symphony, opera, ballet, multiple museums, two professional sports teams, and plenty of social options. Our students love the vibrancy and variety that comes with living in an urban environment. Here I would echo the higher education writer Jeffrey Selingo’s theory that urban universities are increasingly the places where college students want to be, both now and in the future.


Having a highly successful athletics program has no doubt helped as well. Our football team has played in seven bowl games in the last eight years, including appearances at the Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl. Our coach, Tommy Tuberville, is a former National Coach of the Year, and our stadium—home to the second-oldest playing field in the nation—sits in the middle of campus and is open for all of our students to enjoy.

Top-ranked programs, affordable cost, real-world value, a destination campus, our urban location, and outstanding athletics explain much of our enrollment success but not all of it. I would also add that our enrollment management team ranks second to none.


Over the past decade, we have built a savvy statewide strategy that includes directing more marketing dollars to local communities, increasing and diversifying the number of feeder high schools, and a travel schedule that allows me to visit dozens of K–12 schools and community groups each year. As a result, even though the number of high school graduates in Ohio has declined, we have expanded our market share of in-state students over the past decade. More recently, we have also identified targeted out-of-state markets for increased investments in recruiters and marketing.

During my time as provost and now as president, we have enhanced and expanded our investments in several academic areas related to recruitment and retention, including: honors programs; pre-professional advising; first-year experience; an innovative, interdisciplinary, cross-college curriculum known as UC Forward; and e-learning. Now our University Honors Program is bursting at the seams with stellar students (this year’s entering honors students achieved an average ACT score of 32.2—the highest possible score is 36). Meanwhile, our international student population has surpassed 3,100, and we rank 7th in the nation in terms of their overall satisfaction. Lastly, our academic deans have been pacesetters in building robust online programs for a fast-growing population of nontraditional students. Accordingly, UC is one of Ohio’s largest providers of online education.

We’re obviously proud of how the University of Cincinnati has consistently defied the demographic and geographic odds to enroll the biggest and best classes in its nearly 200-year history. But knowing that our world is increasingly attuned to sound bites, we realized the need to translate this unmatched momentum into a short, simple signifier conducive to social-media-speak. The tag we created to best capture this contagious buzz pervading every corner of our campus? #HottestCollegeinAmerica.


Santa J. Ono is president of the University of Cincinnati. His Twitter handle is @PrezOno.


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