James Sinks / The Bulletin

Seven years after the doors opened at the Bend-based Cascades Campus of Oregon State University, an overhaul may be in the works.

Concerned about three years of sluggish enrollment growth, the chancellor of the Oregon University System has launched high-level talks about the future of the branch campus.

The talks involve the presidents of the state’s two flagship universities and also Central Oregon Community College, George Pernsteiner, the chancellor of the Oregon University System, said in an interview Thursday.

Nobody is saying yet what the changes could entail, but Pernsteiner said the current model does not appear to be fulfilling the goals of the state or the needs of Central Oregonians.

“We need to come up collectively with a strategy that will do what we need to be doing in Central Oregon,” he said. “I’m waiting to see what that would be, but clearly I would hope for a lot more enrollment.”

Those sentiments were reinforced Thursday, he said, with the release of fall 2008 enrollment statistics that show robust growth across the university system.

But the growth rate at OSU-Cascades — at 2.6 percent the lowest of the state’s eight university campuses — is falling far short of the double-digit annual gains he expected, he said.

A record 86,546 students are now attending the state’s seven universities and the one branch campus, thanks to soaring demand this fall that boosted enrollment systemwide by 5.2 percent. The freshman class statewide is the largest in Oregon history, officials said.

An additional 4,300 students are attending classes today, compared with the fall of 2007.

Yet of those additional students, 13 are at the Cascades Campus — which puts the branch’s enrollment over 500 for the first time.

Still, Pernsteiner said that Central Oregon statistic is “disappointing.”

He said there’s no hard deadline to get recommendations about Central Oregon-based changes, but he wants to see something soon.

“It is important that the community understands we are committed to make this successful,” he said.

Diana Sloane, the chief executive of the branch campus, said Thursday that the new figures don’t tell the whole story.

Admissions at the school are actually up 27 percent, she said, but those were largely offset by students who departed in a large graduating class in the spring.

Two administrators hired in the past year to help with outreach and recruitment weren’t in place in time to attract students for the 2008-09 academic year, she said. And because the branch campus offers only upper-division classes, the large crop of freshmen entering college this fall wouldn’t be eligible to enroll at OSU-Cascades for two years.

“Our applications and admissions are up, and we think that tells a pretty nice story,” said Sloane, who was picked to lead the branch campus in April 2007.

Still, all colleges need to cope with student turnover, and the branch campus growth falls below state and local targets for the school — and it marks the third consecutive year of less-than-hoped-for growth.

By comparison, Central Oregon Community College enrollment is surging. The number of students taking credit classes is up 782 from last year — an increase of 17 percent, officials said in October.

Expanding enrollment — which would lead to more tuition revenue — has been the top priority at the branch campus, and Central Oregon legislators even secured an extra $2 million for the campus in the current biennium to help attract new students.

Officials at the school used part of the money to give raises and hire additional administrators.

State Sen. Ben Westlund, D-Tumalo, who was elected as the new state treasurer this month, said colleges across the state are seeing more students as a result of the dour economy, but that hasn’t translated into a corresponding jump at OSU-Cascades.

“That’s really the juxtaposition,” he said. “COCC is doing very well, and that is reflected in the increased enrollment, but that’s not in the branch campus numbers. The question that needs to be answered, and soon, is: ‘Why?’”

COCC President Jim Middleton said Thursday that he speaks regularly with OSU President Ed Ray, and recent conversations have not been unusual and have not yielded suggestions for major changes for the branch campus.

“We always meet to explore how to make the partnership work better,” he said.

The Cascades Campus is run by Oregon State University but enrolls students from both OSU and the University of Oregon.

The branch offers graduate coursework and also upper-division classes for students who attend COCC and is based in a leased building on the COCC campus.

A new strategic plan is in the works for the Cascades Campus, and officials are soliciting public input about that proposal until Dec. 10. That plan says campus enrollment will grow at between 5 and 10 percent annually.

Senator-elect Chris Telfer, a Bend Certified Public Accountant who will succeed Westlund in the Legislature in January, said she’s met with branch campus leaders to talk about their long-term plans, which hinge on enrollment gains.

So less-than-projected growth — coupled with the failure of the proposed COCC bond at the polls this month — may force some re-evaluation of college education overall in Central Oregon, she said.

“It may be time to regroup,” she said.