After some Baltimore colleges and universities saw the rate of students accepting offers decline last spring, school admissions officers say that applications are back to normal levels this fall.
While no one can say for sure the declines were caused by the disturbances after Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained in police custody, some campus officials said they suspect the unrest, which unfolded at the end of April as many families made college decisions, played a role.
The 14 members of the Baltimore Collegetown Network, including all of the city's major schools, met en masse this summer to discuss strategies for addressing the rioting when speaking to prospective students. Several schools are also circulating materials designed to address the issue head-on.
The Maryland Institute College of Art, for example, made a movie to show to prospective students, "The Real Baltimore," which shows students out in the community, participating in events like city bike parties and other positive interactions.
"We've always had to address the Baltimore issues of safety," said Theresa Bedoya, vice president for admissions and financial aid at the Maryland Institute College of Art. "What we were really concerned about, and I still don't know the answer to this, is, for those people who had a bad perception of Baltimore, did the unrest and really in particular the way CNN portrayed Baltimore for that long week as a war zone, as a city that was burning … did it hurt our image further?"
So far, there appears to have been little effect on interest for next year, officials said.
At the Johns Hopkins University, officials said the number of early-decision applications submitted for undergraduate enrollment in 2016 is 5 percent higher than last year, while the School of Medicine received its second-highest number of applications ever for next year.
At Morgan State University, rolling applications this fall have shot up about 50 percent. Other schools reported that applications are on pace.
The civil unrest may raise Baltimore's profile among a generation of students with a reputation for being interested in questions of social justice, several admissions officers said. But they said they won't really know if the disturbances had a long-term effect until this spring, when students finally make their decisions.
"I think we're all feeling a little better about it since our terms have started," Bedoya said. "We'll have to see."
The unexpected declines some schools experienced this fall were most evident among younger applicants and those from out of state, admissions officers said.
Loyola University Maryland's incoming freshman class was about 6 percent smaller than the school had anticipated, and admissions officers went much deeper down the waiting list than in previous years, said Marc Camille, vice president for enrollment management and communications.
"Was it something that we would ever attempt to fully attribute or to try to place full attribution on the civil unrest? No, I just don't think that's how things work," he said. "That being said, up until, let's say, the second, third week of April we were pretty much tracking right on par with previous years and right where we wanted to be, and then as the unrest unfolded and as we approached the national candidate reply date of May 1, we just fell off."
At MICA, emails from prospective students around the world poured in in the week of the rioting, nearly a dozen specifically citing the unrest as they declined offers of admission, Bedoya said. In the end, MICA surpassed its enrollment targets by about two dozen students, but it extended deadlines and offered places to about 8 percent more students than in the previous year.
"We felt we came out OK, but the truth is we were very concerned about it," said Bedoya, who has worked in admissions at MICA for more than 30 years.
New student enrollment at the University of Baltimore declined by about 100 students, or 6 percent, but some of that was deliberate, said Miriam King, senior vice president of enrollment management. For example, she said, the school boosted admissions standards for freshmen, accepting fewer applicants.
There were some unexpected changes. Just five freshmen enrolled this fall from out of state, compared to 17 the year before — small numbers but a large percentage shift, King said. The number of students from outside Baltimore and Baltimore County also dropped.
King said she doesn't know if the riots drove the shifts.
"We really cannot attribute it to that, it's just there was a change and the most obvious assumption is that with the younger students, there may have been an impact," she said. "It was anecdotal so we're really hesitant to take that position."
Several schools said they did not experience unexpected changes in enrollment.
Morgan State University has 1,170 students who matriculated this fall as first-time freshmen — the largest number since at least 2011, as the school accepted and enrolled more out-of-state and foreign applicants.
The university offered places to about 260 more students than for the fall 2014 class, but the yield — the percentage of accepted students who decided to enroll — was in line with previous years.
During the riots, parents and students were concerned, but that has passed as distance from the riots increases, said spokesman Clinton R. Coleman, adding that he does not expect it to linger.
"It was there and then it was gone," he said.
At Johns Hopkins, the incoming freshman class was about 100 students smaller than in 2014, but the school accepted fewer applicants, trying to avoid the over-enrollment that occurred last year, said David Phillips, vice provost for admissions and financial aid.
The university's School of Medicine made about 14 more offers than the previous year to get to its class of 120, but that's not a large departure from other annual fluctuations, said Paul T. White, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid.
Location is consistently cited as one of the top two reasons applicants decline offers, but last year financial concerns were number one, White said. Location is often simply about a person from California, for example, wanting a program closer to home, rather than a commentary on Baltimore's image, he added.
"I don't want people to think it wasn't an issue, but it wasn't the only issue," White said. "That's too simplistic."
Coppin State University and the University of Maryland, Baltimore also said they did not experience significant year-to-year changes in enrollment. Those schools did not provide information about how many applications the schools received and how many applicants were accepted.
Several students called Coppin State with questions and some athletes declined offers, but overall enrollment declined by only about 25 students, said university spokeswoman Tiffany R. Jones.
"I won't say that students weren't impacted or their decision-making wasn't," she said, "but what we tried to do as a university was make sure we got out in front of it."
At Morgan, admissions staff — and sometimes the university president — responded to families who called or emailed with concerns, said Shonda Gray-Cain, director of undergraduate admissions and recruitment. Videos posted on the school's website also were well-received.
Student leaders of peaceful protests also confirmed the university's reputation, she added.
"When … there's a need for social change, the university is still rooted in those same values and the students we enroll see that as a priority," she said.
Morgan has increased its recruitment efforts, traveling to places such as Seattle and Memphis to advertise the school, which partially explains the rising number of applications this fall, Gray-Cain said. She predicted those efforts will boost decisions in the spring, despite initial worries.
"Everybody had that first initial thought, but at the end of it, when you sit back and assess what your value proposition is and what you have to offer as an institution, if you can reach the students and the parents, which I think we did successfully to make sure that we let them know what we had to offer and what we were doing here, I think at that point the trepidation you may have will start to dissipate," she said.