Overall enrollment at KU falls 2.7% due to COVID-19 pandemic, declines in international and freshman enrollment

photo by: Conner Mitchell

Students walk along Jayhawk Boulevard, donning masks, on the University of Kansas campus on Aug. 24, 2020.

After months of speculation both inside and outside of higher education that the COVID-19 pandemic would decimate college and university enrollment figures, the University of Kansas seemed to emerge relatively unscathed in its fall semester enrollment.

Overall, KU’s enrollment fell by less than 3 percent, and the university achieved high marks for its one-year retention rate for 2019 freshmen — 85.7%, the second-highest rate in KU history — and its two-year retention rate for 2018 freshmen — an an all-time high of 77.1%, the university announced in a news release.

However, there were areas of concern, as international student enrollment fell by 18.1% and first-time freshman enrollment fell by 7.2% — including a 29.3% decline in freshmen who are also international students that KU Chancellor Douglas Girod said will cause financial problems for years to come.

The Kansas Board of Regents, the governing body for the state’s public universities, announced Thursday that KU’s headcount for fall enrollment — which is calculated on the 20th day of classes — fell by just 2.7%. KBOR also uses a metric called full-time equivalency to track enrollment where it calculates total number of undergraduate credit hours taken in a semester, divided by 15, to determine the number of students enrolled full time.

That metric fell by a bit more than the overall headcount, seeing a 3.4% reduction from 2019. By headcount, KU’s enrollment fell from 24,629 students in 2019 to 23,964 students in 2020; by full-time equivalency, the university’s enrollment fell from 21,329 to 20,614 students.

Blake Flanders, the president and CEO of KBOR, said in a statement that the pandemic has introduced many hurdles to recruitment and retention of students across the state’s higher education institutions that impacted overall fall enrollment totals as was expected.

Across the six state universities — KU, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University, and Pittsburg State University — there was a decrease of 2,677 full-time-equivalent students, or 3.6 percent, the Board said in its own news release. Community colleges experienced a decline of 4,737 full-time-equivalent students, or 11.7 percent, and technical colleges saw a drop of 518 full-time-equivalent students, or 8.7 percent.

“…The pandemic has also converged with longer-term challenges facing enrollment, including a steady decline in the college going rate of Kansas high school graduates,” Flanders said. “The Board is focused on advocating for the institutions as they weather the impact of coronavirus and on addressing longer-term issues to ensure that Kansans can build rewarding careers and Kansas businesses have access to the skilled workforce they need.”

According to KBOR data, here’s how KU compares to the other Regents institutions in 2020 enrollment totals by overall headcount:

• University of Kansas: 24,629 students in 2019 to 23,964 students in 2020, a 2.7% decrease

• Emporia State University: 5,877 students in 2019 to 5,828 students in 2020, a 0.8% decrease

• Fort Hays State University: 15,908 students in 2019 to 15,033 students in 2020, a 5.5% decrease

• Kansas State University: 21,252 students in 2019 to 20,377 students in 2020, a 4.1% decrease

• Pittsburg State University: 6,645 students in 2019 to 6,398 students in 2020, a 3.7% decrease

• Wichita State University: 16,058 students in 2019 to 15,550 students in 2020, a 3.2% decrease

In a KU news release, Girod said the university was pleased with the enrollment numbers given the ongoing upheaval caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Given the historic challenges the pandemic has presented students and families, we are pleased to have experienced such a relatively modest decline in our enrollment,” Girod said. “To have limited the decline … speaks volumes of the great work our faculty and staff have done to create a flexible, dynamic educational experience that meets the needs of our students during such an uncertain time.”

Across all KU campuses, the university enrolled a total of 27,619 students enrolled across all campuses, a decrease of 804 students from last year, the news release said. More than half of the decrease is attributed to the drop in international students, while a third of the decrease comes from the decline in first-time freshmen.

Given the steep decline in international student enrollment (those students also pay the most in tuition and required fees), Girod said that even though the enrollment totals weren’t as stark as experts had initially predicted, the university still faces financial struggles that will force difficult decisions for years to come.

“… KU still faces an unprecedented revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year that will necessitate difficult cost-savings measures in the months ahead,” he said. “Moreover, this year’s decline in international students and first-time freshmen – and projected challenges in international recruitment for the foreseeable future – will continue to present severe revenue challenges for years to come.”

Girod did not go into specifics Thursday on how the enrollment figures altered the university budget for Fiscal Year 2021 — in which KU has estimated it faces a shortfall of $120 million, or 26% of its general use operating budget. That projection was said to be a middle-of-the-road scenario in terms of the estimated financial impact from the pandemic, but it wasn’t entirely clear what enrollment projection factored into the estimated loss of tuition revenue.

In a campus message separate from the news release, Girod said that KU will “likely be able to revise down” the projection due to the better-than-expected enrollment totals, but the current fiscal year deficit is still significant. The university, he said, would provide a revised projection soon.

The message also provided more insight on why international and freshman enrollment falling is a problem not just for the current year, but for the years to come.

“When freshmen enrollment falls, that isn’t a one-year tuition hit; rather, we lose tuition we would have received for multiple years,” Girod said. “Additionally, the decline in international students disproportionately impacts tuition revenue because these students pay the higher non-resident rate.”

He said that the financial impact from those two categories seeing such steep decreases, even with overall positive enrollment figures given the state of the pandemic, it will force difficult decisions to be made at the uninversity.

“All options – including furloughs, layoffs, and salary reductions – must be considered for us to manage through this,” Girod said. “The decisions ahead will be hard, but they are necessary to ensure the long-term health of the university.”

Contact Conner Mitchell

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