KU thinks it may set a record for freshman enrollment when classes begin Monday; dorms are 100% full

photo by: Mike Yoder/Special to the Journal-World

Shaniyah Powell, Berwick, PA., left, and her brother, incoming University of Kansas freshman Jayden Powell, move in to Jayden’s dorm at Downs Hall Friday, August 18, 2023.

The incoming freshman class of the University of Kansas is projected to be so large that KU is leasing space in three off-campus apartment complexes to house an overflow number of first-year students.

In fact, some KU leaders think the incoming freshman class will be the largest in the school’s history. KU leaders are limited by Kansas Board of Regents reporting rules on what they can definitively say about enrollment numbers until the 20th day of classes. But Chancellor Douglas Girod has publicly alluded to KU’s incoming freshman class as the largest in “quite some time.”

Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt went a step further, saying he will be surprised if the class isn’t larger than the 2008 freshman class, which is considered the largest in the university’s history.

The surest sign that KU believes it: It is leasing up a bunch of apartments to convert into de facto dormitory rooms because KU is confident all of its actual dorm rooms are going to be occupied.

“We have quite a few freshmen,” Girod told the Journal-World in a brief interview ahead of the Monday start date for classes on the Lawrence campus. “We are still adjusting to that. We are looking at bus routes and everything else as to what we need to do to handle the additional flow because we certainly want to make sure people have a great KU experience.”

DeWitt said KU has signed a two-year lease with the privately owned Naismith Hall student housing complex at the corner of 19th Street and Naismith Drive. DeWitt said KU is leasing all 400 living units in the complex, however, 200 of them already were rented to students. KU is honoring those leases. The other 200 units, though, are giving KU additional capacity to house incoming freshmen.

Even that, though, is not expected to be enough space. KU has reached a one-year deal to lease 100 living units in the HERE @ Kansas student living complex, which is the multistory building across the street from KU’s football stadium at 11th and Mississippi streets. DeWitt also said KU has a one-year lease for 30 living units in the Hawker Apartment complex at 1011 Missouri Street near the northern edge of KU’s campus.

Girod said KU is leasing units one floor at a time so that it can station a resident assistant to live in the facilities, similar to the arrangement that occurs in traditional dorms.

“We are trying to create that dorm experience,” Girod said.

Now, a looming question is whether KU needs to create more actual dorms. KU leaders are actively thinking about it. There has been talk of student housing being part of KU’s proposed Gateway District that will surround KU’s football stadium.

But Girod told the Journal-World “it is a little bit of a challenge” for KU to figure out whether additional student housing is a prudent path for the university. KU for years has seen shrinking enrollments overall on the Lawrence campus. Girod said his current thinking is KU “might need to build something, but size and location” will be important considerations.

It is an issue that is going to take more thought and analysis, which many university leaders a few years ago would not have guessed would be the case.

“It is a problem I didn’t expect to have,” Girod said.

photo by: Mike Yoder/Special to the Journal-World

University of Kansas freshman students and families unload to move in to Downs Hall Friday, August 18, 2023.

Trend or blip?

Indeed, there was a time that people thought 2008 might be KU’s highpoint, and not just because that’s the year KU won a national championship in basketball.

It was in the fall of 2008, on the heels of that national championship, that KU set its freshman enrollment record with 4,483 enrollees. By 2013, freshman enrollment had dropped to an even 4,000 students. It rebounded a little, but not much. By fall 2019, just ahead of the pandemic, there were 4,125 freshmen. KU took a pandemic hit the next year with a freshman enrollment of 3,829.

At that point, no one knew what the future would hold. It is uncertain that many expected to see the results of fall 2022. KU last year nearly set a freshman record with 4,457 students, an 8% increase from its totals just prior to the pandemic.

In some ways, the bigger news this fall won’t be that KU sets a record, but that it has had two very strong freshmen classes in a row.

KU leaders are enthused about the possibility, but it also is conundrum-producing.

“We are trying to understand our current enrollment trends and figure out whether those are trends or blips,” Girod said. “We know the environment we are in is not becoming more favorable.”

University leaders across the country have been watching what they call an impending “demographic cliff” when it comes to future college enrollments. A multi-decade decline in birth rates is expected to result in fewer high school graduates around 2027, which means there will be fewer college-age students looking for schools to attend.

That pending cliff was one of the reasons KU leaders were comfortable in recent years with eliminating some dormitory space on campus. KU last year demolished Oliver Hall, after it had been vacant for years. Also last year, KU made the decision to cease housing operations at two of the Jayhawker Towers buildings along 15th Street on the main Lawrence campus. Like Oliver, those buildings had millions of dollars in deferred maintenance that needed to be addressed. The Kansas Board of Regents, for financial reasons, has been pressuring universities to demolish buildings that have large amounts of deferred maintenance. KU is planning to demolish the towers in fiscal year 2025.

Now, whether KU will turn around and replace them with something new is an open question.

“Figuring that out will be one of our challenges,” Girod said.

There’s likely a statistic that will stick with KU leaders as they figure. While KU in the fall of 2022 welcomed its second-largest freshman class ever, there was another number in the enrollment report that didn’t get as much fanfare.

Total enrollment on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses stood at 23,872, which was lower than it has been in years. After all, a strong freshman enrollment is only part of the equation.

But perhaps the most significant way to look at that number is to see when was the last time KU had an enrollment that low on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses. According to figures kept by the university, the last time KU was below the 23,872 mark was 1978.

Whether blip or trend, that is a number to account for.

Revamping recruitment

The big question at KU isn’t whether it ought to build more dormitories, but rather whether it can keep attracting record freshman classes.

KU leaders don’t yet know, but they are confident that the size of this incoming class didn’t happen by accident.

“We have taken a whole different approach to recruitment,” Girod said.

For one thing, KU is increasing its efforts in out-of-state recruitment. Provost Barbara Bichelmeyer recently predicted that the percentage of out-of-state students at KU would be at or near an all-time high.

DeWitt said KU has been conducting research, metro area by metro area, to determine which markets might have the most potential students who would find KU attractive as a college home. It has increased its marketing in those metro areas.

Girod also said the university has made it a point of emphasis to respond more quickly to inquiries from prospective students.

But, perhaps not surprisingly, a money issue might be playing a bigger role. KU has “restructured” its financial aid programs, Girod said. Beginning this school year, KU is lowering the required GPA to keep merit scholarships from 3.25 to 3.0, according to a report from the University Daily Kansan.

Girod also said that additional state funding for financial aid has allowed KU to offer some larger financial aid packages to “people who may not have been able to come otherwise.”

KU earlier this year also opened its new $30 million Jayhawk Welcome Center, in conjunction with the KU Alumni Association, on Jayhawk Boulevard. The high-tech center that features a multitude of interactive displays and meeting spaces is designed to be the first point of contact for prospective students and their families. Girod has said “winning the campus visit” has become more critical than ever as universities are competing for a smaller number of students.

That’s a long list of projects KU officials have undertaken to improve student recruitment. But, they might get trumped in the public’s eye by another development. Just like when KU set its last record in 2008, the Jayhawk football and basketball teams have been creating a lot of excitement recently.

“Elevating the visibility of the university is always important,” Girod said. “Basketball and football have been really helpful the last two years from that perspective.”

‘The other side’

National championships and winning seasons, though, are fleeting. So too are some students.

Setting records for freshman enrollment won’t necessarily produce overall enrollment gains for KU, if the university isn’t able to keep students from one year to the next.

Last year was a big year on that front at KU. As we’ve reported, KU became one of the first Regents schools in the state to implement a new advising system for students. Instead of each school or department having its own advising system, KU has created a coordinated program that will be run out of one university department. Every student will have a professional adviser, whereas in the past, some students had university professors who served as advisers. Professors can still serve as mentors, but KU is betting that professionally trained advisers will make a difference in students successfully avoiding some of the hurdles that lead to dropouts.

Girod said KU generally keeps 85% to 87% of its students from freshman year to sophomore year. But as those freshmen continue to advance through the years, the retention rate drops about another 20% before the end of their senior year.

Girod said the university is making a major investment through the advising changes and other programs to improve those numbers. The advising program alone is expected to cost about $6 million to fully implement.

Girod, though, has said it will be worth the investment, and not just because it ultimately will produce more revenue for KU by increasing retention rates for students. More significantly, he said, is it is going to help KU better deliver on a commitment it makes to students.

“I’ve always felt that if we are going to accept somebody and they are going to show up, it is our obligation to get them out the other side,” Girod said. “We need to do everything in our power to do that.”


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