PORTLAND — Oregon’s public universities are bulging this fall with record-high enrollment of 96,960 students, a 5.9 percent increase over last year.

The addition of 5,380 students to the Oregon University System marks the highest percentage increase since 2001 and the third year in a row that the system has seen growth exceeding 5 percent.

The enrollment surge could be a lifesaver for Oregon universities by giving them a boost in revenue that will help them weather expected declines in state funding over the next two years. That boost was enhanced by the influx of an additional 727 new freshmen and transfer students from out-of-state, who pay up to three times the tuition that Oregon students pay.

Betsy Selander, 21, a senior English major at the University of Oregon, where enrollment climbed 4.5 percent this fall, says she’s noticing more classmates. Her landscape architecture class has about 150 students, more students in the class than there are seats, she said, forcing some students to stand or sit in the aisles.

“There is also never anywhere to put a bike on campus,” she said. “Bike racks are jam-packed this year.”

Most of the enrollment increase can be attributed to larger classes of returning students and higher student persistence. The number of existing students returning to classes this fall climbed by 4,004. The percent of freshmen returning for their sophomore year reached 82.4 percent, up from last year’s freshman retention rate of 81.7 percent.

The university system also enrolled 1,376 new students, but 649 of those were nonadmitted students, mostly high school students taking university courses in dual enrollment programs.

Enrollment changes varied widely among campuses, from a 3 percent drop at Oregon Institute of Technology to increases of 8 percent at Oregon State University, 10 percent at Western Oregon University and 26 percent at Southern Oregon University. Portland State University remains the largest at 28,522 students.

Scarcity of jobs in a weak economy, steep tuition hikes in neighboring states, smoother paths from community colleges to state universities, more high school students taking dual enrollment courses from state universities and fewer university dropouts all have contributed to the enrollment jump, university officials say.

Oregon universities drew more students from out of state, particularly California, in part because of enrollment caps and tuition increases at California public universities and sharp tuition increases in Washington, said Bob Kieran, the university systems assistant vice chancellor for research.

Southern Oregon University went after California students with more aggressive recruiting, winning a 38 percent increase in students from the Golden State, said President Mary Cullinan.

The university also upgraded its website, used social media such as Facebook to recruit students, more than doubled its online courses, opened a center near Rogue Community College in Medford, and developed an accelerated track that enables students to earn a bachelors degree in three years. The school also expanded services to help students, both academically and financially, remain enrolled, Cullinan said.

“Southern’s enrollment growth is the result of a very, very systematic, intentional process that we’ve been working on for a couple of years,” she said.

Two-thirds of the 727 additional undergraduate students in the university system this year are transfer students, most from community colleges. That reflects the effort university leaders have made to align course requirements so that it is easier for students to make the transition from community colleges to state universities, said George Pernsteiner, OUS chancellor. He said he also was encouraged by seeing Cullinans success at boosting Southern’s enrollment and by the improved freshman retention rate.

Portland State’s more modest 2 percent enrollment growth probably reflects new admission policies that make it more difficult for marginal students to get admitted. In the past, the university sometimes admitted students even when they didn’t meet every admission standard. The university now is focusing more on supporting marginal students so they succeed and graduate, said Dan Fortmiller, associate vice provost for academic and career services.

Oregon Institute of Technology was the only state institution to have an enrollment drop. Most of that 3.3 percent decline was because of a drop in high school students taking dual enrollment courses through OIT.

International student enrollment at Oregon’s universities grew by 20 percent in 2010 to an all-time high of 5,733 students, representing 127 countries. Students from China led the increase.

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