The liberal arts college is growing, despite challenges to private universities nationwide.

While the announcement was made last week that Marylhurst University, one of Oregon's oldest private colleges, would close its doors this year, the future looks considerably less grim in Forest Grove.

Officials at the 125-year-old Marylhurst University announced this month that the school will close at the end of 2018, due to low enrollment, but Pacific University — which held its first classes in 1849 as the Tualatin Academy — isn't facing the same struggles Marylhurst may have been, according to Pacific University spokesman Joe Lang.

Universities have seen a decrease in enrollment nationwide for many years, Lang said, but while Marylhurst saw its student body cut in half in four years, Pacific is seeing a rise in student numbers.

"In general, undergraduate enrollment has been just declining nationally, but we are actually increasing our enrollment, which is nice," Lang said. "We are still on track to hit our goal of 2,000 undergraduate students and 2,000 graduate professional students by the year 2020."

Marylhurst made the announcement on Wednesday, May 16. School officials said financial struggles ultimately led to the decision.

"Like many small, private, liberal arts colleges and universities, we have seen a steady decline in enrollment since the end of the Great Recession," the university said in a written statement. "Despite these efforts, we were unable to see a viable financial path that would have enabled us to sustain the high level of academic programming for which we have always strived and that would not cause harm to our students, faculty and staff."

Lang said where Pacific has specifically seen a growing number of students in recent years are students from more diverse backgrounds.

"We are really becoming attractive to a lot of first generation undergraduate college students," Lang said. "We see that as something that is probably going to continue within Washington County, especially as the county continues to grow with individuals of all demographic backgrounds."

Lang also believes that Pacific's unique business model, with an almost even number of undergraduate and graduate students, has served the university well. The university has worked to add greater numbers of graduate programs over the years, he said, and many of the undergraduate students stay at Pacific to pursue a graduate degree.

"We're positioned, I think, well for the future," he said.

Pacific has also aimed to add programs in areas where they have seen high demand, including its pharmacist programs.

"We could see what the trends were in college education, which are becoming more specialized," Lang said, "and we saw an opportunity with our existing health programs, and the opportunity to grow some health programs."

As the population in Washington County grows, Lang said much of the demand for jobs will be for healthcare providers and educators, two of Pacific's biggest programs.

"Essentially, we're looking to try to become a community resource for our students and the community as a whole, but we also are looking to fill community needs within the workforce and go with the demand from the community," he said. "Those sectors are going to be perennial, essentially for the foreseeable future."

The announcement to close Marylhurst came as a shock to many, Lang said, but serves as a reminder to smaller universities as an unfortunate reality to keep in mind.

"Certainly it was a surprise to us because they've had so much tradition, and also many successes," Lang said. "It's sad to see a longstanding institution like that have to make that decision."

With nearly 170 years under Pacific's belt, Lang said maintaining tradition is important, but so is moving with the times.

"Certainly we are rooted and founded in liberal arts and sciences, and we are never going to get away from that fundamental foundation, but over the course of time, society evolves," he said. "Arts and sciences is critically important for the community, but how that translates economically is always, I think, a little bit challenging."

With a major focus on science, technology, engineering and math in schools, and a high demand for more technical jobs, prospective students may think pursuing a degree in liberal arts won't get them career ready, he said.

"We have to do really a better job of letting (students) know that if and when you do purse a liberal arts focus, you will be career ready even if it doesn't necessarily appear to be the case," Lang said.

By Olivia Singer
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune
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Follow Olivia at @oliviasingerr
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