AUSTIN (KXAN) — Last year, Manthurs Oseni had a tough decision to make.
After studying at Austin Community College for two years, he was in the process of transferring to the University of Texas when coronavirus started to spread in Central Texas. The pandemic forced institutions of higher education to pivot — moving classes online.
“I wasn’t sure if I should go on with it, or wait until the pandemic was over,” he said. “How long would this go on for? I didn’t know, but I knew it would be for like … an indefinite amount of time.”
Oseni decided to take the leap and transfer, in spite of his general dislike of virtual classes.
“This digital thing makes us feel like we’re worlds apart,” he said. “But I do think I made the right decision because the professors — they’re just so helpful. They’re understanding. They’re caring. They — I can’t count the number of times they like postponed or pushed back deadlines, you know, just to accommodate difficulties.”
If he had waited, Oseni said he would have fallen behind on his goal to graduate on time.
Staying steady at UT
Data from UT Austin showed it set a record for its four-year graduation rate last fall but saw a slight dip in overall enrollment.
In all, 609 fewer students enrolled in the Fall 2020 semester than the year prior — a 1.2% decrease. The university cites a drop in international students as a cause, “part of a national trend related to COVID-19 and travel restrictions.”
Hundreds of colleges and universities across the nation have financial warning signs long before the coronavirus threatened to make everything worse. KXAN’s media partners at NBC News and The Hechinger Report analyzed higher education’s poor financial health, explored how it got that way and looked at the consequences for students. Explore their stories and financial fitness tool by clicking the button above.
Last year, KXAN investigators teamed up with NBC News and the Hechinger Report to look at the financial strength of colleges and universities across the country. At the time, they didn’t find any major warning signs for Central Texas institutions pre-pandemic, but with enrollment inherently tied to revenue, KXAN Investigator Avery Travis asked what this data means for UT Austin.
Miguel Wasielewski, UT Austin’s Executive Director of Admissions, said the university is not discouraged by the decrease.
“Within this whole COVID time, you just don’t know what’s going to happen, and what students are going to do,” he said. “You have to be prepared for up or down. Landing in the middle and seeing sort of the same thing you have last year? It’s really sort of encouraging that there’s consistency — even though there’s so much going on in the world right now.”
In fact, Wasielewski said the school is projecting enrollment to stay steady into the spring semester.
Students can add or drop classes up until the university takes their official enrollment count after the twelfth class day. UT Austin, and most other area institutions, said they would release more data to KXAN Investigators then.
The UT data from last fall, however, showed a few other encouraging signs — including record numbers of Black and Hispanic undergraduate students enrolling. Wasielewski credited, in part, UT’s increased virtual recruiting efforts for allowing them to reach more traditionally underserved groups.
“We have seen a tremendous uptick in the number of students that are registering for our events, and they’re thereby getting access to this information,” he said. “While numbers say one thing, there’s still individual circumstances that we’ve got to, you know, try to help students out to make this progress towards getting a degree at UT Austin.”
Supporting students at ACC
Austin Community College leadership said it prioritized the same kind of focus on each student to maintain enrollment and keep them “on track.”
“We call students. We are looking at where we think there are students that have not registered — maybe they need some support?” said Dr. Shasta Buchanan, Vice President of Student Affairs for ACC. “So, contacting them and giving them that one-on-one support because they just can’t drive to campus as freely.”
Buchanan said that support extends beyond simply helping students register — from offering iPads and computers on loan to students to partnering with the Central Texas Food Bank for food distribution drives.
While its summer 2020 enrollment actually surpassed its summer 2019 enrollment, the community college with nearly a dozen campuses across Central Texas still saw a slight dip — around 2% — by fall. That decrease, however, did not include its adult education or continuing courses.
Buchanan told KXAN the college estimates staying relatively flat from its fall numbers into the spring, as it helps students whose circumstances may have changed — personally or financially — due to the pandemic.
“We are seeing students that are choosing ACC because: ‘If it’s going to be virtual, and I’m going to be virtual somewhere else, too, why would I not make this choice? My classes will transfer, and I’m still getting the best rigor and instruction. I’m getting amazing support,'” she said. “As the community in community college, to be able to really think about, ‘These are their needs; they still want their goals and their dreams and aspirations.’ So, how to make sure that we can facilitate that at a time that works best for them and so that they can still support their family.”
Enrollment increase projected at St. Edward’s
St. Edward’s University leadership told KXAN last year the university hit enrollment goals for fall 2020 after downsizing its budget and laying off nearly 100 employees over the summer. Plus, it exceeded graduate student goals. For spring of 2020, Vice President for Enrollment Management Tracy Manier said the university is projecting an increase in enrollment.
“Growth in students returning to the University who had to leave for the fall semester due to reasons that were likely due to COVID and all of the uncertainty. We are also seeing a number of freshman who are entering St. Edward’s for the first time in the spring because they took a gap semester in the fall,” Manier said.
It’s good news, she went on to say, but shouldn’t make any dramatic changes to the financial health of the institution — thanks to a “proactive approach to budgeting,” even during a pandemic.
“We are always trying to see well into the future to safeguard the financial health of the institution,” Manier explained. “Certainly, the roles in enrollment always come with that pressure, and really the guiding force is thinking about, ‘What is the ultimate value of what we are trying to do here?'”