Chase Portaro (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The college’s annual census reported a 12% year-over-year decrease in freshman enrollment, from 433 first-year students in the fall of 2021 to only 381 this fall. After three straight years of at least 430 freshmen or more, Dean of Students, Missy Bryant said, “The plan was to get 440 first year students.” This year’s shortfall will be a major consideration for the college when finalizing this year’s budget, which will happen at October 13th’s Board of Trustees meeting.
One possible explanation for the decline is lack of exposure to potential applicants. Bryant explained, “Our inquiries this past year were down close to 11%. It makes sense that we landed at a smaller number of deposits.” Naturally, that lack of inquiry also affected the amount of applications from the Class of ‘26. Diane Greenwood, Director of Admissions said, “For fall ‘22, total apps [applications] were 3,408, and that was down from 3,800 the prior year.”
Bryant attributes the decline of first-year numbers to nationwide trends. “The overall demographics of students who are graduating from college has changed significantly. The number is really declining.” According to a January article from NPR, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has been reporting declining undergraduate numbers since 2012, but the two years since the pandemic have witnessed the sharpest drop-off in half a decade.
On a national level, more high school graduates are choosing to forgo college because they are eager to enter the strong labor markets and reluctant to shoulder the high costs of attending college. Larger schools with enormous applicant pools and lower costs of attendance are not as affected, but small liberal arts colleges like Ursinus cannot say the same. Playing catch-up from the start, small institutions with limited endowments were also hit the hardest during the pandemic.
As a result, there has been an increased focus on the viability of liberal arts schools. Dean Bryant said, “Liberal arts colleges nationally have been in the media and people have been critical of liberal arts. Obviously, Ursinus is very committed to the liberal arts and we are constantly trying to promote the value, especially how Ursinus is different.”
This upcoming year will be crucial for Ursinus to prove that it can hurdle the obstacles set up by the pandemic and distinguish itself in the liberal arts market. The Strategic Plan that launched in the summer of 2021 and the capital campaign launching later this year are programs that Dean Bryant believes have the ability to prove that Ursinus is different – that Ursinus’s liberal arts education is a viable option for students’ futures. Also, according to Greenwood, the college will conduct a branding study, which will evaluate how Ursinus is marketed to prospective students.
Despite a hopeful future, Ursinus still has a budget to finalize for this current school year. Money is already tight from pandemic-related costs, but this year’s drop in first-year enrollment will make the board’s allocation decisions even tougher. As to how the budget will specifically be affected this year by the drop, Bryant said, “It will be approved in October, so at this point I think it’s hard to say. Obviously at the senior level we are always concerned about the student experience and making sure that’s being funded appropriately.”
After everything is finalized, Bryant said that President Hannigan will join her at a Senate meeting in either late October or early November to review the budget with the student body. Bryant was optimistic, but she also left me with a cautionary note, padding any potential reaction to cutbacks. “Hopefully that it’s not going to have that much of an impact on the actual student experience, but something’s got to give right?”
The Grizzly will keep readers updated on how much the budget is actually affected by the freshman shortage, but until then, if you would like to attend the next Senate meeting where budgetary and other campus-related issues are discussed, be on the lookout for an email from UCSG.