The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 18, 2020 1:00 am

Pandemic casts shadow on campus

Enrollment dip less than feared

Area colleges credit their strengths

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Purdue University Fort Wayne braced for a 10% decline in credit hours this fall – a worst-case scenario that didn't come true despite predictions of an even bigger enrollment drop nationwide.

Returning students helped soften the blow at Purdue Fort Wayne, which experienced a 4% decline in fall credit hours, said Carl Drummond, vice chancellor for academic affairs and enrollment management.

“A big part of that is our fall-to-fall retention is up this year fairly significantly,” Drummond said last week.

National surveys conducted in the spring painted a bleak picture for fall semester as the coronavirus pandemic prompted students to reconsider college plans. The American Council on Education reported estimates that enrollment would drop by 15%. Maguire Associates, a research consulting firm serving educational institutions, found 12% of prospective students considered postponing enrollment to spring or fall 2021.

It was difficult to know what to expect, said Mark Pohl, associate vice president of enrollment management and financial aid at Grace College.

“Will they show up?” Pohl said. “There was lots of uncertainty.”

'Risky proposition'

Preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse suggest enrollment declines weren't as steep as predicted, Sean Tierney of the Indiana Commission for Higher Education shared during the agency's Oct. 8 meeting.

Tierney is the agency's associate commissioner for policy and research.

Among public institutions, Tierney said, undergraduate enrollment is down 0.4% at public four-year colleges and 7.5% at two-year schools, based on information provided by 22% of U.S. colleges in 26 states. Graduate student enrollment is down by almost 5%.

In Indiana, the number of degree-seeking public students is down about 4% overall, Tierney said, but enrollment at two-year public institutions plunged 14%.

Historically, he said, enrollment in two-year programs would rise and fall as the unemployment rate rose and fell, but this fall bucked those patterns.

“It's very different than what we witnessed in the last downturn in the economy,” Commissioner Teresa Lubbers said last week. “Usually people come back in a downturn.”

Factors including health concerns and strained financial situations likely contributed to the enrollment decline, but the agency believes child care and family commitments were the biggest influences.

Lubbers, who noted the economy requires skills and education beyond high school, hopes enrollment will increase as Ivy Tech Community College begins another set of eight-week courses Oct. 26.

“It's a risky proposition to walk away from higher education right now,” she said.

'Miraculous year'

Enrollment across Indiana's public four-year colleges dipped 1% overall, including a 1.3% decline in undergraduates, Tierney said. Graduate student enrollment was up 0.7%.

Among Purdue students, Drummond said, the regional campus experienced a 5.2% decline in undergraduate credit hours and a 2.7% increase in graduate credit hours for an overall decrease of 4.9%.

But, Drummond said, when Indiana University Fort Wayne students are considered, the campus' total credit hour enrollment decreased 4%.

As the fall semester approached, Purdue Fort Wayne officials were especially concerned about coronavirus conditions in late July and early August – when students are making final college decisions, Drummond said.

Although Purdue Fort Wayne didn't experience the late-summer rush of previous years, Drummond said the university “didn't see a big collapse of students unenrolling.”

Meanwhile, private colleges in northeast Indiana cheered strong enrollments.

Huntington University celebrated a milestone of topping 1,400 students for the first time, with a total enrollment of 1,402 students.

Grace College welcomed an incoming class of 459 students, the second largest in school history and 13% larger than in 2019.

“It's been a miraculous year for enrollment,” Pohl said, adding the group is the Winona Lake school's most socioeconomically and racially diverse.

Announcing in mid-May that Grace intended to reopen in the fall likely instilled confidence and alleviated fears among students, Pohl said.

But, he added, college leaders were aware reopening plans could fall apart if COVID-19 rates spiked and shutdowns were ordered.

The pandemic also hasn't slowed growth at Trine University, which got board approval this month to build a $5.5 million, 120-bed residence hall expected to open next fall.

“With our main campus continuing to attract and retain record numbers of students, our residential facilities are once again nearing capacity, and all indicators point to these trends continuing,” university President Earl Brooks II said in a statement.

When classes resumed Aug. 10, Trine announced it had more than 2,300 students on its main campus in Angola, including more than 700 new students.

It also expected almost 1,000 students in its College of Graduate and Professional Studies and more than 200 at its Fort Wayne Center for Health Sciences.

Even so, Trine officials worried how the pandemic would affect enrollment, and they did everything possible to recruit and retain students, said Kim Bennett, vice president for enrollment management.

Being close to home for many students and allowing athletic teams to compete likely contributed to Trine's appeal this fall, Bennett said.

“I think our personal, hands on approach helps families and makes them feel a level of comfort,” Bennett said by email, noting Trine connected with students through webinars, Zoom meetings and in-person visits.

“We were prepared and ready to talk about our plans with students and families. Each week we would send our student body an update to keep them looped in and feel a sense of ease with all that's going on.”

Indiana Tech's traditional undergraduate program has 1,499 students this fall, an increase of almost 2% over last year, spokesman Brian Engelhart said. That included a 15% spike in the number of Allen County residents, he added.

More students from around the region and the United States also picked Indiana Tech, which helped drive the university's growth despite a 50% drop in new international student enrollment, Engelhart said.

“Students had a strong interest in remaining closer to home, generally within a two- to three-hour radius,” Engelhart said by email. “It was appealing to them to be able to come to a place that was going to be open for in-person classes, where they could come and have a good level of campus life, even with the adjustments made for staying safe during the pandemic.”

Planning ahead

Although the pandemic disrupted traditional recruitment methods, Grace College – which is located along a lake – found success with a new approach this fall. Representatives have brought Grace's boat to high school parking lots, where they set up an information booth.

“It's been a huge hit,” Pohl said, adding the college also has participated in virtual events.

Already, Pohl said, Grace has accepted 2,000 students this fall compared were 1,500 last year, and college tours were up 20% in September from September 2019.

Pohl anticipates fall 2021 could be Grace College's best year yet, but he recognizes the risk in making such a prediction.

“There's lots of year to be had yet,” he said.

Sign up for our daily headlines newsletter

Top headlines are sent daily