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Some universities defy nationwide decline in freshman enrollment

Some colleges saw remote learning as an opportunity to grow.
college enrollment
Posted at 1:08 PM, Jan 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-31 13:08:46-05

College enrollment is dropping across the United States, but that doesn't mean every campus is shrinking.

Take Morgan State University.

The historically Black school reported its fall 2021 freshman class was nearly two-thirds larger than its freshman class in fall 2020.

"We have more than rebounded," said Kara Turner, the university's vice president for enrollment management and student success.

"We did everything we could to make things easier for students during the pandemic. We accepted unofficial transcripts, at least for the admission decision. We waived application fees. We went test-optional. We didn't require the SAT or ACT. We got more applications, so we were able to admit more students."

Turner said the school chose to remain remote in fall 2020, which impacted overall enrollment.

It also set up a unique situation in fall 2021.

"This year, we talk about having two freshman classes," Turner said.

"There's our freshman class, and then what our vice president for student affairs calls our 'froshmores.' Students who came remotely last year, and really, this is their first time setting foot on the actual campus and getting the real college experience."

It is a story that goes against nationwide trends

College enrollment in the U.S. dropped 2.7% from fall 2020 to fall 2021, according to data published in January by the National Student Clearinghouse.

Non-profits, like Morgan State, only reported a 1.6% drop-off.

The decline was much steeper at public two-year schools (3.4%) and private for-profit schools (9.3%)

"We were already seeing a decline pre-pandemic," said Dean Kahler, who serves as vice president of strategic enrollment management at the University of Idaho.

"We're seeing fewer high school students graduating out of the high schools.

That's causing a smaller number of students for us to draw from.

But then you add in the pandemic, and the economy, and I think that we're starting to see students that are questioning whether they want to go on to college. Questioning whether it's safe to go to college, due to the pandemic. Questioning if it is a good return on investment."

The University of Idaho, which is a public four-year school, reported an enrollment increase in fall 2021.

It's a contrast to other public four-year schools, which saw average enrollment numbers decline by 3%.

"Some students may be seeing the economy is really good and they can go out and get that job without needing that skill set," Kahler said.

"Face it, if you walk down Main Street, you'll trip over a "help wanted" sign. The economy is good, and the economy is good for employees to go find jobs. Some of these students may be realizing that and saying, 'You know what, I think I can go get a decent-paying job.'"

Kahler and Turner both pointed to technological innovations as a major reason some schools are able to avoid an enrollment decline.

"We offer many more online classes than we had previously," Turner said.

"We've been doing something we call Morgan Flex, where we've outfitted a large number of our classrooms with remote technology. Students who want to actually be in the class can sit in the class and have that experience. But students who feel more comfortable being remote are able to Zoom in and use technology to be a part of the class still."

"Our institutions are going to have to respond and be more nimble in how they deliver curriculum," Kahler said.

"A lot of schools weren't delivering online programs. Guess what? Now almost every single one of them are delivering online courses. We were forced to do that."

"I think there's going to be a new era of education," Kahler continued. "Some institutions are going to respond to that. Those that don't, I think, are going to struggle."

Turner said there is one other factor working in Morgan State's favor: Its status as an HBCU.

"HBCUs have kinda been this all-too-well kept secret and hidden jewel," Turner said.

"It's this sort of Kamala Harris and George Floyd effect. On the one hand, we're seeing these really high profile movers and shakers out there, who are HBCU graduates. That's inspiring to students to want to come to our institutions."

"On the other hand," Turner continued, "we're seeing students who have seen George Floyd, they've seen Ahmaud Arbery, and they've seen all these horrible things that are going on. They want to be in a safe space, a place where they know that they will be valued and be respected and feel safe."

Other HBCUs have reported a similar trend.

At Howard University, enrollment was up 15% in fall 2021.

Bowie State University in Maryland said its enrollment rose 8%.

"Education has always been seen as the best path to middle-class socioeconomic status, and to improvement, for the lives of black people in their communities," Turner said.

"There is, perhaps, less of the discussion that you may be seeing nationally about, 'Is college worth it?' Because we know directly from our history how important that access to education has been."