Colleges and universities in New Orleans are reporting declining enrollment in the fall, although a drop among the top-line numbers paints a more complicated picture as private institutions fare better than the smaller, less selective public campuses still recovering from the turmoil of the pandemic and the recovering from Hurricane Ida.
Inflation, a strong job market and a lack of affordable childcare options are drawing many older, non-traditional students into the job market, but there are also reports of pandemic and storm-related stress convincing some students to take time off. This is broadly in line with the national picture, although some higher education institutions have found a way to buck the trend.
“What we are seeing right now is not unique. Many city institutions are experiencing some ebbing,” said John Nicklow, president of the University of New Orleans, where fall enrollment fell 13% to 999 students and overall enrollment fell 11% to 7,112 students. These headwinds are impacting the majority of institutions in Louisiana and across the country.”
Xavier University admitted 838 freshmen this semester, down 15%. Total enrollment also fell by 5% to 3,419 students. At the University of Holy Cross, first-year enrollment is down 22%, with 48 freshmen, and total enrollment — including graduate students and others — is down 9% to 1,120.
“The pandemic and Ida have had an impact,” said Jeannie Brown, vice president of admissions and financial assistance at Holy Cross, noting that some families were simply living elsewhere because of the storm. “First-generation students struggle to pursue their college goals.”
At private schools a different story
Tulane and Loyola also took fewer students, but Tulane said his strategy is to take smaller classes this year and next, and Loyola notes it exceeded its goal, saying last year was a record year.
Tulane accepted 1,843 freshmen this fall, down 9% from last year. But Shawn Abbott, vice president for enrollment administration and dean of admissions, said last year has been “less than ideal” with the university guaranteeing housing for first- and sophomores. Abbot said Tulane has shifted its strategy to enrolling closer to 1,800 freshmen and will do so again next fall.
Meanwhile, total enrollment is essentially flat, down less than 1% to 14,578 students. Abbot pointed out that the student body, with 14,669 members last year, was the highest in recent memory. The university has managed to keep its admissions “remarkably stable” during the pandemic, which Abbott attributed to the school’s efforts to keep classrooms open as much as possible.
At Loyola University of New Orleans, the 817 freshman enrollments this year represent an 11% decrease, although the school noted last year’s enrollment was a record 923. The total number of enrollments fell by 3% to 4,436.
“While the first-grader class isn’t as large as the all-time high we’ve seen during the pandemic last year, we still surpassed our undergraduate enrollment goal,” interim president Justin Daffron said in a statement. “We are also pleased to welcome another major first-year law course and a growing number of online, graduate and transfer students.”
The Allure of a “Drop Year”
National surveys have found public institutions nationwide to be hardest hit by the declines, with smaller, less selective schools being hit the hardest. In Baton Rouge, the state’s flagship, LSU, grew 4% with 7,367 freshmen.
But the UN’s Nicklow said it’s a very different story for public universities with graduating classes that have more 30-, 40- and 50-year-olds, where students come and go more often than their high school-college counterparts. UNO’s retention rate is 61%, up from 71% before the pandemic.
“Families need to spend more of their money on everyday necessities and commitments,” he said. “And it’s an incredible job market; if you want a job, you can get one. We’ve seen many part-time students take full-time jobs because they can.”
Speaking to students who had not re-enrolled, Nicklow said: “We heard a resounding commonality, a delayed impact of the combination of the hurricane and the pandemic. I lost my house, I have to work to help my family, my family needs me at home to take care of the kids.”
Brown said Holy Cross began reaching TOPS awards from freshmen this year, which could mean additional aid of up to $26,072 over four years. It has also begun offering a one-time residential stipend of $1,500 for the roughly 50 residential places on campus.
In addition to the Privateer Pledge, which pays tuition and fees not collected through state or federal scholarships for qualifying students in Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard Parish, the UN this year launched a program called coaching and mentoring, a laptop and provides a Wi-Fi hotspot, meals, gas money or a bus pass, and guided tour opportunities for qualifying students. This year, 58 students qualified.
Two schools, Southern University in New Orleans and Delgado Community College, have managed to buck the trend despite facing the same headwinds.
SUNO Chancellor James Ammons Jr. said first-year enrollments were up 29%, from 111 last fall to 143 this year. He said SUNO has aggressively partnered with high schools in New Orleans, visiting campuses to recruit students and inviting prospects to tours and faculty meet-and-greets.
He said SUNO’s new nursing program has helped along with the return of athletics, and the school is using federal pandemic funds to help with books.
“It seems we’re connecting with the traditional college-age student, which is a great sign,” he said.
However, Ammons noted that progress in freshmen was offset by a 16 percent drop in students who had previously attended school but dropped out, leaving total enrollment flat for the year.
While adult education centers across the country continue to struggle, according to the latest figures, Delgado has managed to recoup its losses from the pandemic period.
There were 2,036 freshmen this fall, up 18% and slightly up from fall 2019.
However, the total number of enrollments still bears scars at 12,297, down 12% from Fall 2019.
Delgado spokesman Tony Cook said the school has streamlined its process for enrolling first-year students and added support programs that take a case management approach to meet student needs.
While national surveys suggest that long-term approval trends are not favorable for many public bodies, some on the ground say they are not panicking just yet.
“I think we’re all optimistic…especially in the Southeast,” Nicklow said. “But we’re trying to find ways to woo our students, to re-engage our students, and to give them what they need to restart (the school) and graduate.”
“There is no end,” Ammons said of those who chose to work or take time off. “You will come back.”