Early fall enrollment data shows mix of success, struggles at 10 universities

Some institutions have seen a boost from freshman class.

Having now fully emerged from COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, colleges and universities have either shown their strength to survive or their inability to thrive.

Enrollment numbers across the country, released early at many institutions, have been all over the map to open the fall semester. Some, such as Santa Clara University, are enjoying the most new students in its 170 years of operation, while others, such as Northern Michigan University, are continuing to post serious drop-offs.

The dire situation at NMU, which has lost more than 2,500 of a pool of fewer than 9,000 students over a couple of years, led to the firing of its president, Fritz Erickson, on Friday. Erickson, who had been in the role for six and a half years, was released by a unanimous vote, though he will remain as a tenured professor. Erickson received praise from Board of Trustees member Steve Young and Board Chair Tami Savoy for his work, especially for keeping “a level of calm and stability during the pandemic,” but it wasn’t enough to save his job.

“You don’t have to be sick to get better,” said Young. “I believe we need more leadership and forward thinking in the area of strategic planning, more thought and action as to what we want this university to look like—not tomorrow or the next 48 hours, but in the next six years, 10 years and out into the future.”

Young was blunt in his assessment of the former president and the university as it seeks a turnaround.

“I believe we need more critical thinking and idea generation from the president’s office,” Young said. “In the area of enrollment, we need more. We need bold action. Declining enrollment is never something we should accept. Rather, we should wake up every day thinking about how can we reverse that trend and grow.”

Successes and struggles

Last year and even through the spring, enrollment figures posted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed declines of about 2.5% nationally (and near 5% in the spring), though some sectors were hit much harder, particularly two-year institutions. Those declines appear to have continued at some institutions and have led to an unstable atmosphere in higher ed, where the majority of leaders expressed concern about the financial viability of their institutions.

Though its foundation is strong, the University of Wisconsin system sustained a 1% drop this fall, according to figures released on the first day of classes.

“The last 18 months have been incredibly challenging, not only for our UW schools but also at colleges of all types throughout the nation,” President Tommy Thompson said in a statement. “With plentiful jobs and COVID-19 creating challenges, retaining students has been especially difficult for all of higher education.”

The University of Wyoming has seen a 3% drop in enrollment, in part because of a decline in nonresident numbers.

“Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many students to stay closer to home to start their college experience,” Kyle Moore, UW Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, noted in a university release. “It also has resulted in large decreases in community college enrollments in Wyoming and nationwide, which impacts transfer numbers. The pandemic seriously hampered our ability last year to do face-to-face recruiting out of state and bring nonresidents in for campus visits. We’re redoubling our efforts to recruit students from outside the state while still making recruitment of Wyoming students our No. 1 priority.”

Early enrollment figures at both the University of Iowa and Iowa State University show declines of 2% and 4%, respectively, but first-year students at both institutions are on the rise. At Iowa State, that number is 6%. South Dakota’s public universities saw a slight decline in enrollment, though it was less than years past.

“We still see impacts from the ongoing pandemic,” Brian Maher, executive director and CEO of the Board of Regents, said in a statement. “While we dedicated ourselves to offering a more normal higher education experience this fall, these are challenging times.”

Although some institutions such as Lincoln University in Missouri are seeing steep drops (11%), others have made it through the pandemic largely unscathed. In fact, some universities, such as Santa Clara, not only reported record application numbers but backed them with strong figures to open 2021.

One state seeing positive outcomes is Texas. The University of North Texas is reporting a 4% rise in enrollment, while Texas Tech University is savoring a boon from its incoming freshmen to post its 13th straight year of rising figures. According to the Austin American-Statesman, the University of Texas system set a record again for the number of Hispanic undergraduate students.

Higher education leaders should know more in the coming weeks and months about the state of enrollment when the Clearinghouse releases the first in its series of annual reports.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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