College enrollment numbers up, despite pandemic

NOW: College enrollment numbers up, despite pandemic

SOUTH BEND, Ind. - This week on The Learning Curve our team put k-12 schools to the side to take a look at how colleges are trying to keep enrollment numbers up.

When you go to IU South Bend off of Mishawaka Avenue - the first thing you notice is the silence.

There’s not the usual hustle and bustle you normally see or hear at a college campus. And that’s because colleges across America and here in Michiana have had to adjust the way they teach.

"So our focus was always a top priority, health, and safety. And then given that, how many kinds of impersonal environments can we offer for students, because we knew students would want some in-person interactions. And so once we figured out how to design those safely, then we could figure out okay, this 30% of classes can be in person. And so that was how we went about it," Susan Elrod, the Chancellor at IUSB said.

With about 70% of students doing a mixture of 100% virtual or hybrid learning, school officials were expecting the worst when it comes to enrollment numbers.

"So we came in, we set a target for ourselves kind of knowing the covid landscape," she said.

But in fact, the numbers surprised everyone.

"And we actually exceeded that target. So we came in at 4942 students. And that's just a couple of percentage points down from last year. So that's really, really exciting news because we were anticipating 20% down, and we just didn't see it," she said.

Graduate students and diversity numbers are also up.

"We were also pleased that our graduate student enrollment is up. And our diversity numbers are also up. So for example, our new in our new-student class are beginning freshmen. African American students enrolled at a higher rate. So they were up 16%. Our Latin x population still is growing. So we had increases in those students as well," she said.

Some reasons why IUSB might have not seen such a dramatic drop in enrollment numbers can be chalked up to three things.

The first - they’ve changed the way they market the university.

"We moved our whole operation virtual so that we could meet with students in the virtual space to get them set up with an advisor, help them register for their classes answer their questions. We held some open zoom meetings for parents and students to just pop in for an open session," she said. "We did a lot of that as we were ramping in August and July, and we had virtual tours. So you can go on our website and there's a great set of resources for students to see the campus virtually”

The second - they made it easier for students to apply.

"So we have now a test-optional admissions process, which is really helping us process applications much faster. So students are getting admitted quicker," she said.

And despite no change in tuition rates...

"Our admits are up compared to last year, so we are trending in the positive in terms of admits," she said.

Being a public university may be the reason so many students are coming back even if it’s virtual.

"First of all, we're really affordable. Second of all, they are eligible for financial aid. And so even those online course fees get wrapped up into their financial aid," she said.

But what about private universities like Grace College in Winona Lake that cost much more?

“This year, tuition is $26,532 for new students this year," Mark Pohl, the Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management and Financial Aid at Grace College said. “Room and board here at grace is just under $10,000. So that would be on top of the tuition.”

Despite the high cost, enrollment numbers at grace college actually increased this year,  even after a decrease in retention rates.

“We had over 10% increase and new students this fall. So about our second largest class ever at grace. And so that was really exciting for the college retention was down slightly as it wasn't most places," Pohl said.

College officials chalk that up to increased financial aid.

“So every college had to reevaluate their price point or financial aid," he said. "What we did instead of lowering our price, we had the opportunity to offer more financial aid to students by ways of merit scholarships, grants from the college.”

Easier admittance

“Because LSAT and ACT have been postponed, some were canceled, depending on the region of the country students from and so we went test-optional. And so we've actually made that a permanent policy here at rice, knowing that a student's high school grades much better reflect their ability in college than a few hours on standardized tests," he said.

And a new way of marketing the school.

“We haven't been able to go into high schools like normal. And so one really unique thing we've done at grace is we brought our race speedboat to the parking lots of high schools. When they're on lunch break, after school will be waiting in the parking lot to give out grace materials.," he said. "So you know, part of it was we came out in May, saying that we had a plan to reopen in august and I think students wanted that”

So despite many colleges and universities across the country seeing enrollment numbers dip, at least a few locally are changing with the times and are seeing those numbers go up instead.

The Learning Curve is continuing after Thanksgiving so if you have any story ideas related to local school districts, reach out! [email protected]

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