DALLAS — Texas universities braced for pandemic-related dips, but many area schools saw spikes in enrollment this fall.
COVID-19 disrupted students’ plans for college as schools suddenly shut down and classes were moved online. Higher education leaders nationwide worried about a catastrophic effect on institutions if enrollment trends continued downward. Enrollment fell to 16.9 million from 17.5 million this past spring, marking a one-year decline of 3.5%, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
But student enrollment exceeded expectations at several state schools with record-breaking numbers at the University of Texas at Dallas, the University of Texas at Arlington, Texas Tech University, the University of Texas at Austin and others.
“Here in North Texas, we’re seeing the opposite — we’re seeing a boom,” said Neal Smatresk, president of the University of North Texas. “People were heartened because they got to return to normal. They got to return to real classes and events.”
Before the pandemic, UNT had nearly 39,200 students in its 2019 fall semester. This semester, that grew to more than 42,370 — making it the largest enrollment in its history with the largest freshman class ever.
UNT also had its largest international student enrollment, which grew by 62% this year with students coming from China, Vietnam, Nepal and largely from India.
Back in 2020, the university set a goal that in five years, 20% of total enrollment would be from graduate students. UNT exceeded that milestone this year by reaching nearly 23%, officials said.
“We were all worried what would happen last year,” Smatresk said. “This year — and in the face of those worries and remote [education] and COVID and all the rest of it — we have been thriving.”
But challenges remain as schools brace for drops due to significant drops at community colleges, which were the hardest hit nationwide by the COVID-19 pandemic, carrying the burden of more than 65% of the total undergraduate enrollment losses, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Texas community colleges saw an enrollment drop of 9%, according to the Texas Higher Education Board.
That drop, in turn, impacted four-year universities.
UNT-Dallas president Bob Mong said the university saw growth for the 11th consecutive semester, but only by 1%. He said it was “difficult to achieve” because the school relies heavily on community college transfer students as well as local high school students and nontraditional students.
“A lot of people are putting off their decisions until the spring,” he said. “We’re not up as much as we usually are. … Some people just did not feel comfortable going forward.”
And while Texas Woman’s University saw its second highest enrollment numbers, there was a slight dip compared to last fall’s record-breaking numbers, mainly due to fewer transfers from community colleges.
“There are some challenges obviously with students who perhaps their financial situation changed because maybe a parent lost a job or maybe they lost a job,” said Nikki Young, TWU’s director of admissions. But Young added that her team also dealt with students who felt burnt out, isolated, disconnected and hesitant to pursue a degree.
Her team focused on working with high schools and community college advisers to really push for the completion of financial aid forms because “that’s usually an indicator of whether or not someone will attend college.”
Universities also stepped up recruiting efforts by expanding email and mailing outreach efforts, particularly since in-person events at high schools were limited. But maintaining students already enrolled was also a challenge for schools.
Although Texas Tech achieved record enrollment for the 13th consecutive year — surpassing 40,000 students last year — the campus also saw a 2% drop in the retention of freshmen, said president Lawrence Schovanec.
“The online experience and the lack of personal experiences have impacted the retention of last year’s first-year class,” Schovanec said. “You don’t see that effect in the upper classes.”
Just like other institutions, the drop in community college enrollment was also a concern with about 10% fewer transfer students.
Some universities also saw the continued uptick in new master’s students, which follows the trend that the U.S. saw in the spring semester with graduate enrollment jumping by 4.6%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
The University of Texas at Dallas saw its biggest number of enrolled students in the fall of 2019, right before the pandemic hit, said Juan E. González, the school’s associate provost. This semester the university saw a 5.4% increase compared to then.
UT-Dallas’ master’s student demographic is also unique because 69% of it is made up of international students. González said most weren’t worried about public health safety coming to the U.S. but were concerned about whether they could get their visas because of application backlogs and possible travel restrictions.
The fact that the vaccine was readily available in the country was also a big incentive for them and their parents, he said.
Although schools are starting to see rebounds, last year’s dip will have long-lasting effects.
Texas Wesleyan University saw a decline in enrollment during the pandemic, but this fall’s numbers nearly bounced back to where the school was in 2019.
“The freshmen that we would have had last year are not becoming sophomores this year,” said Alan Liebrecht, Texas Wesleyan’s vice president of enrollment, marketing and communications.
“[Schools] are still going to have to deal with a smaller class from last year,” Liebrecht said. “It’s going to take us a couple of years before we’re able to move out of the impact the pandemic had on many schools last year.”