The Utah State University Eastern campus buzzed with life before COVID-19 as students attended classes in person and participated in clubs. Classes moved online and the campus became nearly deserted.
Now that classes are returning to normal-ish, the campus lacks its former vibrancy. Is this temporary, or could there be a permanent scar?
A Utah System of Higher Education report released last month shows that enrollment at USU Eastern dropped 13% from the 2020 shutdown year. Enrollment peaked in the fall of 2019, slipped slightly in 2020, and cratered this fall.
USUE is not unique. Community college enrollment nationwide is down 15% from 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Undergraduate enrollment is down 8%, enough for CNBC to report that “across the country, colleges are in crisis,” and many universities face bankruptcy and closures.
The numbers are more somber for first-year enrollment at community colleges, down 20.9% for the 2021-22 academic year. Especially hard-hit are junior colleges and universities with a higher percentage of middle and low-income students.
USUE is showing the early signs of a turnaround. It held an open house for high school students on Nov 8. Seventy-seven students, parents and other guests attended the three-hour event, up 117% from 2020, says Kristalyn Hepworth, USUE’s campus visit coordinator.
The enrollment drop is not entirely COVID specific. Colleges and military recruitment typically thrive in slow economies and struggle in healthy economies as young workers have more opportunity in the job market. More are enrolling in technical education or certification programs, according to Bloomberg.
In most parts of the country, only elite universities, which turn away a high percentage of applicants, have shown an enrollment increase, up 3.1% in 2021 to match 2019 enrollment. Utah colleges are out-performing. Utah State University’s enrollment as a whole is 27,426, down only 265 students from 2020, while the University of Utah gained 1,382 students for a total enrollment of 34,462. Utah State and Salt Lake Community College were the only two institutions with a smaller number count, according to the Utah System of Higher Education.
Shanny Wilson, director of Orientation and First Year Experience at USU Eastern, is optimistic enrollment will start to rise again. “There are conversations taking place about how Eastern can help increase enrollment and I feel good about the direction we’re planning to go,” she says, though no additional details were provided.
USU resumes face-to-face classroom instruction starting in January for students with proof of a COVID vaccination, or students granted exemptions, and one hope is that students who took a break from college because of online and hybrid learning may start to resume their education.