Eastern Oregon University has always been a home for students looking for a smaller, more rural college experience in Oregon, but that role is now official.
The La Grande-based university has been designated by the state legislature as Oregon’s Rural University.
“It defines our role in the state and shows our unique mission,” said Tim Seydel, EOU’s vice president for university advancement.
The designation — which passed both chambers of the legislature unanimously and was signed by the governor on Tuesday — doesn’t come with a boost in state funding or new rules for how the university is run. But Seydel said it could help set EOU apart when applying for state and federal grants for programs that are targeted toward helping first-generation college students, for example, or those from rural communities.
“When they say, ‘Why Eastern?’ we can say, ‘That’s what we do,’” he said.
Seydel said it could also help with recruitment at the university, which was at 3,016 students during the fall term. He said some students are searching for a smaller, more rural experience where their professors know them by name.
Many of those students come from Umatilla and Morrow counties. Umatilla County students have made up roughly nine percent of EOU’s enrollment for the last decade, and this year there are 311 students from Umatilla County and 48 students from Morrow County. The university has increased recruitment efforts in both counties as it looks to boost its numbers.
Rep. Greg Smith, who sponsored the bill, agreed that the designation as Oregon’s Rural University could help EOU with recruitment of students from rural areas who don’t want to attend school in a big city.
“They’ll know that they’ll be coming to an environment they’ll be comfortable in,” Smith said.
Officials in other parts of the state have sometimes eyed closing the small university as a way to save the state money, so Smith said he also felt the designation will remind lawmakers from more urban areas of EOU’s importance in serving Eastern Oregon residents.
Jer Pratton of Hermiston, who serves on EOU’s board, said being Oregon’s Rural University sets EOU apart from the state’s other public universities and helps define the university’s purpose.
“When funding issues come up it sends a better message and we can advocate for EOU in a stronger position,” he said.
David Nelson of Pendleton, another EOU board member, said higher education is a “highly competitive world” where universities have to make the case that they deserve funding — a case strengthened by the legislature officially recognizing the university’s importance to rural students.
The rural university designation may help EOU’s future, but things have already been looking up for the school.
In 2014 morale at the university, which draws hundreds of Umatilla County students, was low. EOU was in financial difficulty, cutting majors and laying off staff. Students told the East Oregonian during a visit to campus that they had seen friends give up on the university and transfer elsewhere.
While low enrollment numbers are still a struggle four years later, Seydel, Smith, Pratton and Nelson all said other areas — from financials to academics to the success of the university’s sports teams — have improved considerably.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do but we’re certainly in a better place than we were three years ago,” Nelson said. “We’re on an upward trend.”
Nelson said now that the university has its house in order and is “re-establishing itself as a major player in the region” it can focus on marketing and recruitment and get those enrollment numbers up.
Pratton said as a fiscal conservative he was worried about the university’s financial position when the board of trustees was created in 2014 (before that, a single board oversaw all of Oregon’s public universities). But he credited the board, its financial committee, then-interim university president Jay Kenton and current president Tom Insko — who is an EOU alumnus but came from a business, not education, background — with working together to help turn the situation around and put the university on solid financial footing.
“Beyond that, the quality of what’s been happening there has been bumped up by several notches,” he said, noting a number of new and improved services and programs on EOU’s campus. “I’m very proud of EOU.”
The university’s reach extends far beyond its hometown of La Grande. Only half of EOU’s students this fall were attending the university on campus. Another 1,415 were taking classes online and 88 were high school students earning EOU credit at their schools through the Eastern Promise program.
Seydel said community colleges throughout the region — including Blue Mountain Community College’s Hermiston and Pendleton campuses — have EOU staff located on-site to advise students considering transfer to EOU. The university recently renewed its “two plus two” agreement with BMCC to allow for a seamless transition for students transferring between the college and EOU.
Seydel said the university is also building partnerships with area industries and government agencies so that students can find more meaningful work study and internship experiences.
One thing EOU staff and students are particularly excited about is the $9 million the university just received from the legislature for creation of a large indoor multi-use track and field facility on campus. The fieldhouse will help EOU expand its physical activity and health plus outdoor recreation and leadership majors, which Seydel said have been growing already, and give student athletes indoor, on-campus facilities for practices. Seydel said the facility will be one-of-a-kind for Eastern Oregon and will also be available for community uses ranging from walking on the track to holding youth camps.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.