by ALEXANDRA RETTER
As the fall semester rapidly approaches and some college students begin arriving in Winona, local universities are projecting declines in enrollment and brainstorming how to stay in touch with those learning virtually or taking a gap year.
Saint Mary’s University (SMU) is projecting a five- to 10-percent decrease in total enrollment. Universities typically conduct a census of students around the 10th day into the semester, SMU Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Timothy Albers noted. A better idea of exact enrollment figures will be had by SMU at that time, he added.
Winona State University’s (WSU) overall projected headcount of 6,862 students represents a decrease in enrollment of about 7.8 percent, or around 584 students, from this time last year. The rate of continuing students, such as rising sophomores and juniors, who are re-registering at WSU is 69.9 percent. Last year, the re-registration rate was 70.3 percent.
WSU had aimed for 1,600 freshmen to attend the college this fall. Currently, 1,298 are projected to be enrolled at the university. The university had a goal of 560 transfer students entering WSU this fall. Now, 357 are projected to be enrolled at the college. WSU had also aimed for 65 post-secondary-enrollment option students to attend the college this fall. At this time, 75 are projected to attend the university. The university had a goal of 320 graduate students entering WSU this fall, lastly. Currently, 250 are projected to attend. Though the college didn’t reach its target for grad students, the projections are an increase in enrollment of 20.8 percent, or 112 students, from this time last year.
SMU’s projections have led to caution in budgeting for this year and future years, Albers said, noting that the university knows there will be some deficits, but those deficits do not necessarily have a number firmly attached to them at this time.
Several months ago, the university had projected that enrollment would be down 10 to 15 percent, and that projection allowed planning for careful budgeting to begin, Albers said.
Positions of employment at the university have been evaluated, as have mailing procedures. Some materials could be emailed instead of SMU paying to print and send them, he explained.
The number of students who are enrolled at WSU impacts the amount of revenue that is generated, WSU Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Life Dr. Denise McDowell noted. However, some health concerns trump revenue worries amid a pandemic, she added. “When it became evident that COVID-19 was going to be part of our vernacular for some time, we started making choices early on. We said, ‘We’re going to err on the side of safety’ … And if that means it will impact the bottom line for the campus community to be healthy and safe, we’d rather err on that side,” McDowell shared.
A larger number of freshmen than ever before have told SMU they plan to take a gap year and come to campus for the first time next fall rather than this year, Albers said. In the meantime, some of those students aim to stay at home and attend a college nearby.
Freshmen will receive assurance that their admission status and scholarships awards will be recognized next year, he said.
Fewer older, returning students have elected to take a year off. However, some international students who would have been continuing their education at the university will not be able to make it back to the U.S. this year, Albers said. SMU is working to arrange online courses for those students. The university is also working to approve the transfer of credits from other colleges for students who will not be at SMU in the fall but will be taking classes elsewhere.
Some students have told WSU that they wish to take a gap year due to their courses being online for the most part, McDowell said. Others have said, if classes are online, they’d prefer to take them at a community college closer to home to save money, she stated.
Conversely, some students are very eager to return to WSU, regardless of how their classes are going to be held during the fall semester, McDowell said. They simply want to get back to the traditional college experience, she added.
Some students enrolled in online classes will attend those courses from their homes in other parts of Minnesota or different states, she explained. Other students taking online classes will be living in Winona in a WSU residence hall or an apartment.
The universities are striving to stay in touch with students who are learning virtually in an area outside Winona or taking a gap year to keep them connected with campus life and provide them with the information they need about topics such as courses and financial aid.
“I think the theme overall is going to be less waiting to hear from students and more reaching out to students to see if there are things we can help them with,” Albers noted.
McDowell also said proactively contacting students is a goal for this year. “One of the things we’re working day and night to figure out and do it well is, ‘How do we allow students to stay engaged? How are we going to communicate on a regular basis and not wait for them to call us?’” McDowell noted.
One communication method is being tried now. As part of a calling campaign, WSU students are currently receiving calls welcoming them back to campus, whether they will be in Winona or at home in a different city or state.
Albers has taken part in many conversations with his counterparts at other universities over the past few months, and the collaboration has been motivational, he said. “That’s been one of the bright spots in this — the cooperative nature and creative thinking people have put in” to try to serve students well during the pandemic, Albers shared.