The Journal Gazette
Sunday, October 31, 2021 1:00 am

College enrollment down again

10.4% decline over 5 years at state campuses

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Fall enrollment at public colleges declined again statewide, with only Indiana and Purdue universities' flagship campuses and some Ivy Tech Community College sites reporting gains.

The overall 2.6% drop in degree-seeking students brings the five-year loss to 10.4%, from 267,598 students in fall 2016 to 239,799 this year, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.

With an enrollment drop of 1.3%, four-year public institutions took less of a hit than two-year schools, which shrank by 7.1%, the commission reported.

The Ivy Tech Community College system experienced a 6.7% decline overall. The Fort Wayne campus saw an 8% drop, the commission said.

Susan Brown, a vice chancellor at Ivy Tech Fort Wayne, said the college's commitment to changing lives and graduating a pipeline of skilled workers into northeast Indiana hasn't changed.

“Our students often face challenges beyond the classroom, which have only been compounded by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brown said in a statement. “We are encouraged by our lessons learned from the pandemic and proud that we have continued to provide excellent instruction through it all.”

Enrollment is important, considering Indiana's quickly approaching goal of at least 60% of working-age Hoosiers having a high-quality post-secondary credential by 2025, said Sean Tierney, an associate commissioner.

Teresa Lubbers, the commissioner, reported in September that the state's attainment rate was 48.3%.


Higher education faces two big issues regarding enrollment, Tierney said. The population of college-going students isn't growing as fast as it historically has, he said, and the percentage of 18-year-olds going straight from high school to college is declining.

The most recent data showed 59% of 2019 high school graduates enrolled in education after high school, down from 61% the previous year. In 2015, the college-going rate was 65%, the commission reported in the spring.

The coronavirus pandemic also is keeping higher education officials guessing.

“I think it's safe to say in this era of COVID, we've just had to try to anticipate all possibilities,” Tierney said in an interview last week. “We know that there's a lot of things at play from the virus itself to all of the secondary aspects that come out of it, like child care issues and school closures.”

Lucrative employment opportunities have likely affected Purdue University Fort Wayne's ability to enroll and retain students, said Krissy Creager, vice chancellor for enrollment management and the student experience. 

The regional campus has 6,211 degree-seeking students this fall, down 8.4% from 6,781 last fall, according to the commission's fall census headcount.

But figures provided by Purdue Fort Wayne showed the campus had a narrower decline – 7.8% – in undergraduate and graduate students, from 6,879 last fall to 6,342 this fall. When high school dual-credit students are included in the calculations, enrollment increased by 2.5%.

The commission's numbers exclude students in dual-credit program and non-degree-seeking students, the university said.

“We value those students who are either in the dual-credit program or those classified as non-degree seeking,” spokesman Geoff Thomas said by email. “The hard work they're putting in is no less significant, which is part of the reason why these figures are also used for our official enrollment reports.”

With so many employers needing workers, Creager said, it's difficult to convince students supporting families to continue their studies when they can make an immediate financial impact on their households by accepting a job paying high hourly wages.

“How do you tell a student not to pursue those things?” Creager said.

Indiana Tech also cited compelling employment opportunities as a reason some students have put college on hold.

Other factors – many related to the pandemic – also contributed to the private university's decline in its traditional undergraduate program enrollment, spokesman Brian Engelhart said by email. It decreased from 1,499 last fall to 1,381 this year.

Some students switched learning methods, moving from the traditional undergraduate on-campus program to Indiana Tech's adult online program. This can help students manage a job and their studies, Engelhart said.

“Other students and their families were affected by the pandemic in (a) variety of ways that caused them to hit pause on their college careers,” Engelhart said, noting their family finances or family members' health might have been affected.

Areas of growth

Private institutions Grace College and Trine University boasted enrollment records this fall.

Grace welcomed a record-high 471 new students to its Winona Lake campus for an overall enrollment of 1,919 students this semester, a news release said. Every student in the incoming class received financial aid, and more than 25% are attending classes tuition-free through federal, state and institutional grants.

“A key to our success comes from excellent financial aid packages,” Mark Pohl, Grace's associate vice president of enrollment management, said in a statement.

Angola-based Trine has 5,467 students, exceeding its previous enrollment record by 200, according to a news release.

Enrollment in the programs at the university's College of Health Professions in Fort Wayne grew by 7%, the release said. It includes Trine's first doctoral program and a master's program, among other offerings.

Graduate enrollment statewide increased, at least among public institutions. It grew by 5.3% over the previous fall, although undergraduate enrollment dropped by 4.2%, according to the commission.

Graduate programs have helped fuel enrollment increases at Huntington University, which has experienced an overall growth trend over the past five years with a slight dip in 2021, said Susanne Watson, director of undergraduate admissions.

The university's graduate offerings include an occupational therapy doctoral program with locations in Fort Wayne and Peoria, Arizona, she said.

“During the pandemic, many people began thinking, 'What do I want for myself and my career?' and the answer to that question is leading them to seek out graduate programs,” Watson said by email. “Many graduate programs have shifted from degree-seeking students to acquiring certificates. Additionally, the graduate degree market is influenced by employers through the benefits that they offer for their employees.”

The University of Saint Francis, a private institution, is experiencing the opposite trend seen among public colleges. It has an undergraduate uptick and flat enrollment in graduate programs, Beth Terrell, vice president of enrollment management, said by email.

“We have strategically identified our 'good fit' students, increased our geo-market footprint, leveraged our financial aid and have leaned in to our Catholic and Franciscan mission and values,” she said.

Shift at PFW

Although degree-seeking enrollment at Purdue Fort Wayne is down, Creager said the university saw a 32% increase in international students and a 6% increase in out-of-state students. Almost 13% of the student body hails from outside Indiana.

Recruits include more students with stronger academic backgrounds, Creager said. Almost 60% of incoming students this fall had a final high school GPA of 3.2 or higher – compared with 46% in 2017.

The ability to market the Purdue name has helped recruitment, Creager said.

And the Fort Wayne campus targeted West Lafayette applicants who didn't meet the flagship's admissions criteria, such as ACT or SAT scores.

The local campus temporarily removed that barrier, Creager said, noting the pandemic affected students' ability to take those standardized tests.

Purdue Fort Wayne's attractive qualities include a lower tuition and apartment-style housing – a “major attractor,” Creager said. This is the fourth consecutive fall that student housing is over capacity.

The 1,328 students living on campus includes those at St. Joe Place, a neighboring apartment complex where the university leases units to accommodate demand.

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