Despite the pandemic, higher education enrollment is down but the numbers are "encouraging"

Posted at 12:55 PM, Nov 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-09 11:52:49-05

NAMPA, Idaho — According to the Idaho State Board of Education, when the coronavirus pandemic began in spring, early projections predicted enrollment at universities on the local and national levels would plunge 20 to 40 percent.

The Idaho State Board of Education says if this prediction came true, it would have been devastating for students and institutions. After crunching the numbers for the upcoming fall semester, the board is optimistic after learning system-wide, enrollment at all eight public institutions is down just five percent.

Here are the numbers from the State Board of Education:

Fall 2019 Fall 2020

Enrollment Overall 78,918 74,779

Resident student enrollment is down seven percent, but non-resident enrollment actually grew by two percent, which indicates that more students came to Idaho, specifically because they wanted in-person instruction.

Fall 2019 Fall 2020

Resident Students 64,913 60,535

Nonresident Students 14,005 14,244

The number of freshmen students enrolled seems to mirror this. Resident students seeking academic degrees are down six percent. Non-resident academic freshmen are up two percent. The difference is more profound for freshmen enrolled in career-technical programs (CTE). Resident CTE freshmen are down 12 percent. The number of non-resident CTE freshmen, while small, increased five percent.

Fall 2019 Fall 2020

Resident Academic Freshmen 9,837 9,228

Nonresident Academic Freshmen 2,519 2,576

Resident CTE Freshmen 1,548 1,357

Non-resident CTE Freshmen 112 118

There are likely multiple factors at play, but decreases in CTE enrollment may be due to many courses, including necessary hands-on training, which makes appropriate physical distancing difficult.

It’s possible that at least some of the drop in resident freshmen numbers can be attributed to dual credits earned while in high school. We know some of these students enter college as sophomores or even juniors because they took several dual credit courses during high school. A definitive answer requires more research.

We do know that fewer high school students are taking dual credit courses this fall and it is causing the biggest drop in higher education enrollment – a 16 percent decrease overall.

Fall 2019 Fall 2020

Dual Credit Students 20,464 17,134

Idaho BOE President Debbie Critchfield says the K-12 school year has been difficult for everybody, and the drop in dual credit enrollment can likely be attributed to that, but nonetheless, the State Board and its institutions find it very concerning.

Still, Critchfield says there's reason to have hope.

"From where we started with our initial projections to today, we feel comfortable with where we are, even though we know there is a decline in enrollment," she says.

At the College of Idaho in Caldwell, the Vice President of Enrollment Management says CoI's total enrollment for the 2020 fall semester was the third-highest in the history of the college.

"A lot of that was a result of an improved retention rate from freshman to sophomore students," explains Brian Bava. "We had a record enrollment last year in fall 2019 so that large class retained really well."

CoI is slightly behind what they were hoping for this year as Bava says some international students weren't able to or didn't want to attend online while a number of others took the term off and deferred admission.

Now, Idaho's universities and colleges are working with the unknown, doing what they can to support current and prospective students.

"There are some things like I say that we've gotten good at and we understand better, but as a nation, we're learning this at the same rate and so that always presents its challenges and it's easy to look back and say, 'well, maybe we should have done this or shouldn't have done that,' says Critchfield.