Coronavirus’s impact on fall enrollment ‘completely unknown’

A+student+walks+towards+Swen+Parson+Hall.+

Patrick Murphy

A student walks towards Swen Parson Hall.

Kierra Frazier, Reporter

DeKALB — Potential impacts of COVID-19 on fall enrollment are “completely unknown,” as the university is preparing for a unique semester, said Sol Jensen, vice president of enrollment management, marketing and communications. 

“[Fall enrollment] is a crystal ball at this point,” Jensen said. “I think every university is kind of saying that right now as well because we’re just not sure yet how this year will play out because it’s just so different from any other year that we’ve ever worked through.” 

In early March, the university was looking at a strong first-year class in terms of enrollment, and while that’s still a possibility, it’s still hard to tell whether students will decide to enroll in the fall semester, Jensen said. 

“As of right now, in terms of trying to do any kind of projection, it’s just not feasible,” Jensen said. “And it won’t be probably until later in August when we have a much better idea of when students are making those final decisions.”

Since fall semester classes may be taught in-person, online or a combination of the two methods, a lot of incoming students may decide to stay closer to home instead of staying in a residence hall, Jensen said. 

Bradley Bond, associate vice president of the  Division of International Affairs, said in a June 24 email U.S. consulates around the world are closed and not issuing visas. This means new international students will need to start their degree programs online for the fall.

“We believe that every academic program will offer sufficient and appropriate courses for those students to enroll in while abroad,” Bond said in an email. 

In January 2019, the university implemented a five-year Strategic Enrollment Management Plan which projected a Fall 2020 enrollment of 16,749 students, an increase of 140 students from Fall 2019. For Spring 2020, 10-day enrollment numbers showed 15,419 students were enrolled at the university.

Jensen said there are certain aspects of the enrollment plan that may need revisions. However, overarching strategies for improving the university’s brand, improving hiring processes and increasing student enrollment won’t change. 

“It’s really sort of the day to day initiatives that we’ve had to kind of reprioritize,” Jensen said. “A big component of the plan, at least for new student enrollment, is getting students to visit campus. Well, students visiting campus has not been an option since early March, and it may not be an option still for quite some time.” 

Jensen said hosting online admitted student days, open houses and orientations will most likely continue to be an online option in the future since there has been a higher turnout for virtual events like admitted student day. 

“The nice thing about our SEM [Strategic Enrollment Management] plan, as we said from day one, is that it’s a living and breathing document,” Jensen said. “Although we haven’t formally gone back in and said ‘okay we’re changing these,’ there certainly are things that the pandemic sort of precipitated our advancement of some of the initiatives.”

Bond, who is also dean of the graduate school, said as of right now, graduate student enrollment is more robust than it was at this time last year. 

“New graduate student enrollment is slightly ahead of where it was last year, and continuing students are significantly ahead,” Bond said in an email. “However, to match Fall 2019 graduate enrollment, the pace of enrollment will need to continue.” 

Graduate students account for 25% of NIU enrollment, according to the Strategic Enrollment Management Plan. 

Jensen said he understands how returning to campus in the fall may be a difficult decision for some students due to the economic climate. He said the university will continue to review potential first-year student’s applications until Aug. 1.

“We’ve demonstrated how much we care for our students,” Jensen said. “I think that impacts both those students who are thinking about returning but also, as the word gets out to new and incoming students, about how we take care of our own students and I think that’s important.”