James Madison University
Office of Institutional Research

Research Notes

Volume 15, Number 2

July, 2001

Enrollment Projections At JMU

The purpose of this Research Notes is to describe the process by which the Office of Institutional Research (OIR) develops JMU's enrollment projections. In order to understand better the process, however, it is important for the reader to understand the context, goals, and trends that direct the development of annual projections.


The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) is required by Code of Virginia to coordinate enrollment projections for the public higher education institutions. In the spring of odd numbered years each higher education institution must submit formal enrollment projections to be approved by SCHEV. Biannually SCHEV will invite State economists and demographers to speak to institutional representatives about economic and demographic trends that will likely affect higher education in Virginia.

Enrollment projections serve several purposes. The JMU Budget Office uses the enrollment projections to estimate the revenue that will be generated to support the university's annual budget. The Division of Academic Affairs uses the projections to estimate the number of new freshmen and transfers that they need to accommodate. The Admissions Office uses the new freshmen and transfer targets to determine the number of new students to offer admission. It is critical that the enrollment projections be as accurate as possible so that the Admissions Office does not make too many or too few offers. The importance of accuracy has increased dramatically as the university has stabilized enrollments. Even a 100 student shortfall or miscalculation in the number of out-of-state students will have a significant impact on revenues in the 100's of thousands of dollars.

Enrollment projections have been prepared by OIR for more than 20 years. Each year they are revised to incorporate emerging enrollment trends and the strategic goals of the university's administration. In the 1970's, 1980's, and 1990's JMU's strategic goals included growth from 4,041 in fall 1970 to 14,961 in fall 2000.

In 1998-99 President Rose directed that the university create a Centennial Commission to help the university decide the type of institution JMU would be at its 2008 Centennial. The report was submitted to the Board of Visitors and administration to help guide policy. The university's administration incorporated the work of the Centennial Commission into a set of 29 Defining Characteristics, of which #25 addresses enrollment growth.

25. The university, long characterized for its continuous enrollment growth, will stabilize residential enrollment.

In his inaugural address, President Rose reiterated the university's commitment to stabilize residential enrollment.

"As president, I will do my utmost to provide a compelling and convincing argument to generate additional State resources for the University’s operating budget. While additional capital outlay dollars are needed for new buildings to satisfy current enrollments, it must also be recognized that we have renovation and renewal requirements to upgrade aging facilities on our campus. Once we achieve our previously agreed upon enrollment projections we must stabilize the residential enrollment until we are able to reach a satisfactory funding equilibrium."


Based on the work of the Centennial Commission, the administration's goal, and JMU's need for financial predictability, OIR pursues the following two goals when developing enrollment projections.

  1. Provide input to help JMU stabilize enrollment. Many factors (See below) are monitored closely to ensure that JMU has sufficient students to meet its financial needs. Targets for new freshmen and transfers are set to ensure stability of enrollment for the undergraduate curricula.

Enrollment projections, however, are part science, intuition, and dumb luck. The goal is to be as accurate as possible on a regular basis. However, predicting the actions of 18 to 22 year old students is not exactly scientific. A multitude of changeable factors go into making enrollment projections. Retention and graduation rates fluctuate between years. Graduate school attendance is frequently dependent upon the economy. It is especially hard to predict the number of students who will enroll on a part-time basis.  But, in headcount enrollment totals, a student who signs up at the last minute for a once-a-week night course counts the same as a full-time undergraduate living on campus.

JMU will stabilize enrollment, but in some years the actual fall headcount will be higher than projections due to increased retention, more graduate students, etc. Keep in mind that, with an enrollment as large as JMU's, a variance as small as one percent can create a difference of 150 students. In some years the headcount will be less than projections. The goal is to ensure that enrollments are predictable for many years while understanding that in any one year the actual may differ by 100 to 200 students from projections.

  1. Out-of-state students will account for less than 30 percent of all students. The university is committed to a diverse community that includes students from Virginia, out-of-state, and foreign countries. While the university values a diverse campus community, JMU will continue to enroll the vast majority of students from Virginia. Since 1990 JMU has increased the number of in-state students by nearly 2,000.


OIR annually monitors various trends and uses the information to update the enrollment projections. Changes in these trends, either positively or negatively, affect the total enrollment number and the university's budget. The results of careful monitoring of these trends can be used to adjust the number of new students to ensure that JMU's overall enrollment remains stable.

  1. Retention and Graduation Rates: Fortunately, JMU has enjoyed very stable retention and graduation rates for more than 10 years. Although the retention rate of new freshmen from their first year at JMU to their second declined slightly between 1989 and 1994, it has remained very stable since 1995 at between 90.1 and 90.5 percent. Since retention rates (freshmen to sophomore, sophomore to junior, etc.) vary slightly from year to year, OIR monitors these very carefully to incorporate the most recent trends into the projections. JMU's graduation rates have also remained very stable at between 79 and 82 percent for the last 10 years. Again, OIR monitors these rates annually to make small adjustments as needed. OIR typically incorporates the most conservative estimates to ensure the budget office's revenue projections at least make their targets. Even a small over-projection of enrollment can result in JMU missing its budget by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  2. Retention and Graduation Rates of In-State and Out-of-State Students and by Gender: Research conducted by OIR shows that there differences between the retention and graduation rates of in-state and out-of-state students and by gender. In-state students are slightly more likely to remain at JMU after their first year, but out-of-state students graduate at a higher rate. Out-of-state students have a much higher four-year graduation rate (+8 percent) and a higher six-year rate (+2 percent). OIR monitors very carefully the retention rates of in-state and out-of-state students between years (freshmen to sophomores, sophomores to juniors, etc.) to project the number of out-of-state students in any class and for the university as a whole.
    Recent studies have confirmed that JMU female students have higher four-, five-, and six-year graduation rates than males. While OIR does not specifically incorporate these rates into the projections, the increasing proportion of females in the student population (now 58.4 percent, up from 55.2 percent in fall 1995) will eventually result in higher overall retention and graduation rates.
  3. Graduate Students: Graduate school enrollment has declined in the last several years. This is a national trend that has affected JMU. In recent years the decline in graduate enrollment has been offset by a slight increase in undergraduate enrollment. However, if graduate enrollment increases in the next several years as a result of new graduate programs, the university may have to decrease undergraduate enrollment to stabilize enrollment.
  4. Average Number of Credit Hours Taken By Students: The projections sent to SCHEV include the number of full-time equivalent students (FTES) for in-state and out-of-state students by level and session (summer, regular session, and off-campus). The university's actual FTES are compared with projected FTES, and if the actual exceeds the projected by a certain amount, the university can be penalized financially by SCHEV. The Office of Institutional Research carefully monitors the number of credit hours taken by students and adjusts the projections accordingly. For example, between fall 1998 and fall 2000 the average number of credit hours taken by undergraduate students decreased by almost 0.5. While this is a small amount, it was unexpected. The change in this ratio resulted in an increase in out-of-state tuition for 2001-02 that was mandated by SCHEV.

Projections Submitted To SCHEV, April 2001:

The official projections for JMU can be viewed in the link above. The table shows that JMU is expected to stabilize enrollment between fall 2001 and fall 2005. Also, the number of new freshmen is projected to remain stable at 3,250 and the number of fall transfers will vary between 550 and 600. Spring transfers are expected to remain at 100, but can be adjusted depending on fall enrollments.

Questions about enrollment projections should be directed to the Office of Institutional Research at ask-oir@jmu.edu.


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