Some Texas colleges recovering from pandemic enrollment losses, others have ‘long way to go’

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — When University of Texas senior Henry Hancock realized he would be taking classes online indefinitely due to the pandemic, he said it was a surreal feeling.

“Having only spent one semester online, I got the sense it would have really been tough for me,” he said.

Hancock instead opted to take a semester off school to get a job and work in Wyoming, during the spring of 2021.

“I was lucky enough to be ahead on credits at that point,” he explained. “So blessed to be able to go and have that time, when I know a lot of students were here still online,” he said.

Hancock wasn’t alone, as students all over the nation considered gap years or even delayed enrollment altogether. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board reported a more than 6% decline in students enrolling in higher education straight out of high school.

“That’s not the kind of thing that just resets as more people get vaccinated, and we get through these variants, because we know the longer students stay out of higher education, the lower the chances are they are going to re-enroll,” said Harrison Keller, the Texas Higher Education commissioner.

Despite a national trend of declining higher education enrollment, a KXAN analysis of Central Texas institutions reveal many schools are reporting increases for the Fall 2021 semester. This comes after a slight dip in enrollment at some of these same schools during the pandemic.

Total enrollment at the University of Texas at Austin rose 3% over last fall, from 50,476 to 51,992. Officials said that was close to the all-time high of 52,261 students, set back in 2002.

Texas State University reported total enrollment of 38,077 students across both the San Marcos and Round Rock campuses, which is up from 37,849 students in Fall 2020.

Both universities reported enrolling record-breaking first year classes.

This fall, St. Edward’s University reported gaining 126 new students from last year.

“This growth was seen in all categories including freshmen, with a large growth in transfers and re-entering students,” a spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, Huston-Tillotson University reported a 5% decline in enrollment this semester, down to 1,003 from 1,058.

Commissioner Keller said they were seeing generally positive trends for enrollment at schools in Central Texas and the Houston area, but the board worried about other regions of the state.

“There are places in Texas that area experiencing a much faster recovery,” he said. “But we still have a long way to go to be able to get students across the state to enroll.”

A graph showing the increase in enrollment numbers at Central Texas institutions of higher education.
A graph showing the increase or decrease in enrollment numbers at Central Texas institutions of higher education.

On average, Keller said enrollment was up at large state universities. However, they were most concerned about declining enrollment at community colleges, regional and broad access institutions. He noted these are “the kinds of institutions that most Texans attend.”

Enrollment is ongoing at Austin Community College, meaning its official data has not been finalized yet. KXAN expects an update next week.

Keller commended UT Austin and ACC for what he called an innovative approach to digital learning.

“With breaking down three credit courses to three one-credit courses; with having half the course meet online and then, when folks get together, they are doing more hands on kind of work together,” he described.

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.

He also noted they are seeing students enrolling now with much different needs than the traditional first-year coming straight from high school, such as targeted mental health resources, as well as more child care and transportation options.

KXAN began investigating Colleges in Crisis last fall, partnering with NBC News and The Hechinger Report as they studied the financial strength of institutions across the country. More than 500 showed warning signs of financial stress in at least two of the areas analyzed, including a pattern of declining enrollment, even before the pandemic began.

Commissioner Keller said the board is also watching the impact enrollment decisions have on the financial well-being of the potential students themselves, in addition to the institutions at-large.

“There is no better insurance policy against unemployment than a post-secondary, high-quality credential. That is more and more important,” he said.

He noted they have seen unemployment rates as much as double for people who haven’t completed their bachelor’s degree and even triple for people with only a high school degree.

“The pandemic accelerated changes that were already underway — much faster — in our economy than anyone anticipated. That shifted in the way of higher skills and higher credentials,” Keller explained. “We have hundreds of thousands of Texans who are going to need to re-skill and up-skill, so that they can get a better job, so that they can advance in their careers and even so they can get back into the workforce.”

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.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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