‘People want to be part of a winning enterprise’; Girod predicts largest freshman class in a decade on heels of KU National Championship

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

University of Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod, pictured on July 7, 2022.

The University of Kansas is expecting its largest freshman class in at least a decade, KU Chancellor Douglas Girod told the Journal-World.

KU started fall classes on Monday, and will have official enrollment totals by mid-September. Girod expects the freshman totals to be strong, but he stopped short of saying overall enrollment at KU’s Lawrence campus would increase. KU’s Lawrence campus enrollment hasn’t posted an increase since 2017. But Girod said a large freshman class is the best way to reverse that trend.

“Certainly the indications are this probably is going to be our largest freshman class in a decade,” Girod said in a recent interview. “That translates into a significant increase in enrollment as those numbers play out over four years. It will help us dig out from the drop we saw in the pandemic.”

That pandemic downturn is one of the reasons KU may not yet post overall enrollment growth, despite a large freshman class. The 2020 class — basically today’s college juniors — was small due to the pandemic. The 2020 class was about 7% smaller than the average class size just prior to the pandemic at KU, according to numbers from the university. As that small class matriculates through the university, it weighs on KU’s overall enrollment totals.

What’s one possible antidote? A national championship in basketball might be a solution.

For months Girod has been saying that KU’s men’s basketball national championship has been beneficial to the university’s recruitment efforts. He said the university hasn’t quite figured out how to quantify the impact, but it is actively looking for a way to determine how much the national championship played into new student gains versus some of the other enrollment and recruiting changes the university had implemented.

“But being on a national front page for six weeks in the postseason, you can’t find a replacement for that,” Girod said. “It creates a tremendous energy on campus and off. People want to be part of a winning enterprise.”

If Girod’s prediction of the largest freshman class in the last decade comes to fruition, that could be anywhere from one hundred to several hundred new students over and above KU’s recent freshman enrollment. In 2021, KU’s freshman enrollment totaled 4,119 students, according to university statistics. In 2020, the pandemic saw that number shrink to 3,829. KU’s high-water mark for freshman enrollment this decade was 4,233 in 2016.

It was no coincidence that 2017 — one year after the strong freshman enrollment — was the last time KU has seen its overall enrollment on the Lawrence campus increase. In 2017, enrollment on the Lawrence campus totaled 23,669 students. By fall 2021 the number had fallen to 22,508.

Demographic trends across the country have put downward pressure on university enrollments. While KU has seen a decline, many other universities — including Kansas State in this region — have seen even sharper declines. That would make a recent record for freshman enrollment all the more significant at KU.

“Obviously we would be bucking the headwinds of higher education in that regard,” Girod said. “We hope we can make that sustainable.”

In other news as KU started classes, Girod told the Journal-World he thinks the impact of COVID will be much less noticeable on campus this semester than in the recent past.

“We are looking at a pretty normal year for us, we believe,” Girod said. “We will stay in close contact with public health experts to modify things if we need to, but we are pretty confident we are going to have a pretty normal-looking school year, at least for this fall semester.”

In an email message to students, faculty and staff on Monday, Girod also provided updates on a few other topics. They included:

• KU’s monitoring of changes in athletic conference alignments. “Of course, this continues to be as dizzying a period for college athletics as we’ve ever seen,” Girod said in the written message. “As I’ve said many times, our membership in a Power Five conference benefits our broader mission as a research university, which is why we will continue to do everything necessary to ensure KU is well-positioned in the evolving landscape of college athletics.”

• How the recently announced plans for a massive electric battery plant in De Soto are likely to impact KU. “Last month I joined regional leaders to announce that Panasonic will build one of the nation’s largest electric vehicle battery production plants in De Soto. This project entails a $4 billion investment and 4,000 jobs, making it the region’s most impactful development project in history. 

“This is a tremendous opportunity for KU in terms of research partnerships and jobs for graduates. More broadly, a project of this size will fundamentally change the region and underpin many of the decisions we’ll be making related to campus facilities, development projects, and partnerships with civic leaders in the years ahead.”


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