The COVID-19 pandemic has left local college and university officials with uncertainty about their fall enrollment numbers.
Dr. Martha Lou Smith, vice president for general education and technology services at Pearl River Community College, said predicting a pattern of enrollment is a difficult task during “the best of times,” and the pandemic has brought even more difficulty to that process.
“It’s simply too early to know how the fall 2020 enrollment will fare, but, thus far, we have enrolled a substantial amount of returning students and are excited to begin enrolling new students soon. We are certainly hopeful that community colleges will be seen as an opportunity to fill the educational needs of students,” she said.
Kate Howard, dean of admissions at the University of Southern Mississippi, said she believes overall enrollment in colleges and universities across the United States will drop for the fall term.
“I think colleges and universities will take a hard hit in enrollment; overall, you will see a downward turn across the nation,” she said. “I don’t think Southern Miss will be immune to that. We are trying to keep our numbers as close to where they are now ... or bring them up.”
Howard said the university is unable to begin projecting fall enrollment numbers because its orientation sessions were pushed back. However, there has been a steady increase in transfer student applications, she added.
“We moved our orientation programming. Traditionally, we have our orientations in May, and, of course, that’s not starting until July ... so, it’s hard to have good comparative data at this point because everything is pushed back for the health and safety of our students and staff,” she said. “We have seen a steady pool of new transfer applicants, and I think that’s because those community college graduates who wanted to join the workforce are not in the best economic market right now. I think they will go on and finish a four-year degree.”
Howard said the university is seeing 30-50 transfer student applications each day.
Dr. Tommy King, president of William Carey University, said the university’s pre-registration numbers are higher than those from last year.
“We track enrollment on a daily basis, and we are in the midst of pre-registration now. Of course, those numbers are meaningless until the first day of school in the fall, but, as of now, our enrollment is tracking above last year,” he said. “For summer registration, we are almost over 200 students above last summer’s registration. We are 150-160 above last fall’s registration on the same day.”
King said those numbers could change, but he credits the influx of students to the economic strains caused by the pandemic.
“Students are sitting at home with nothing else to do,” he said. “Over the years, we have noticed that when there is a downturn in the economy and job loss, students take advantage of that opportunity to return to schools and upgrade their skills. I think the same thing is true for this coming fall, but if the job situation turned around dramatically and they are getting called back to their jobs, then they might not come. We feel very encouraged about summer and fall because our numbers are somewhat above where we were a year ago.”