Higher education stakeholders have been transfixed by declining student enrollment numbers in the past decade, which were only exacerbated further by the pandemic. But at the beginning of this new fall semester, colleges across the country are reporting big turnarounds.
The University of Arkansas, for example, has welcomed a record number of students this school year, topping 32,000. Out in the Midwest, the smaller liberal arts-focused Wheaton College missed its 2019 enrollment mark by only 20 students after suffering from a series of budget cuts last year.
Whether rebounding from a sluggish 2022 or rivaling pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, colleges and universities embraced a variety of initiatives to win new students and maintain a healthy cohort.
Leverage community college pipelines
The University of North Iowa is experiencing its largest enrollment class since 2020, months before the pandemic, and the largest year-to-year increase in enrollment in more than a decade. While UNI is seeing an 8% increase in freshmen, this marks a truly astounding year for its transfer student numbers; specifically, nearly three-quarters of its transfer students hail from a neighboring Iowa community college, Iowa Capital Dispatch reports.
UNI’s partnership with Iowa Community Colleges, UNI@IACC, helps forge the pipeline for community college students who yearn for a degree but are inhibited by life commitments and locale. Aside from providing remote, flexible learning modes, UNI@IACC also measures students’ financial needs, providing scholarships and tuition assistance directly through the program.
While the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s enrollment overall is down from Fall 2022, it has seen an 11.5% gain in first-time college students, thanks in part to an 8.9% increase in community college transfer students, NC Newsline reports. UNCG’s Transfer Promise, like UNI’s community college partnership, provides community college students with special scholarship opportunities, as well as university counselors, to push them to the finish line.
“It takes an entire campus to enroll the new first-year class,” said Tina McEntire, UNCG’s vice chancellor for enrollment management.
Expand college’s access to high-potential students
Illinois State University and Appalachian State University (N.C.) are experiencing a 4% increase in first-year students this fall compared to last year. For both schools, it also marks their largest incoming freshman classes ever.
Both first-year student cohorts are primarily fueled by an impressive number of underrepresented students, such as those that are Black, Hispanic or of other minority races. For example, ISU’s first-year class comprises 41% of students from this group and boasts a 3.64 GPA. At App State’s Hickory campus, more than half its students (58%) are first-generation, and 21% are from underrepresented groups. Of App State’s total student population, the underrepresented student group population has grown by 6% since last fall, Appalachian Today reports.
“We are steadfast in our belief in the power of higher education and in our determination to help others experience the difference a college degree makes, not only for first-generation graduates but for each subsequent generation,” said App State Chancellor Sheri Everts.
Prioritize competitive academic programs
As higher education engages with a skeptical public over the value of a degree, some institutions have chosen to leverage emerging workforce demands to create sought-after academic programs. It’s proven to be the right call.
The Class of 2027 at the University of South Alabama is one of the largest in school history, bumping first-year enrollment by 19% compared to last year. With computer science and nursing some of the most in-demand jobs right now, South’s School of Computing saw an 8% enrollment bump, and its College of Nursing recorded its largest undergraduate enrollment.
Similarly, Iowa State University saw its most significant first-year enrollment increase since 2018, Ames Tribune reports. Iowa State University President Wendy Wintersteen is not shy about what she attributes the growth to.
“This growth is a direct result of Iowa State University’s commitment to provide innovative programs that meet student interest and workforce needs,” she said in a release. “Through our Degrees of the Future initiative, we are continuing to develop new programs and majors that will prepare students for high-demand careers and help Iowa businesses and industry thrive.”
Degrees of the Future provides $1.5 million in funding for exploring cutting-edge degree programs in digital health, game design, precision agriculture and others. It’s also backed by President Wintersteen’s $3.5 million faculty hiring initiative to support the growing fields.