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COVID-19 accelerates declining enrollment at Coppin State despite hybrid return to campus

Already struggling with declining enrollment for years, Baltimore’s Coppin State University has only seen that problem exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, more so than other schools in the area.

Enrollment at the historically Black institution has declined by 11.5% this fall, down to 2,391 students, 313 students fewer than last year, according to Aaron Singleton, a university spokesman. The decrease in enrollment has posed financial issues, compounded by millions of dollars in recent budget cuts imposed by the University System of Maryland, which includes Coppin State.

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Coppin State’s drop in enrollment was the most among the 10 University System of Maryland schools that provided enrollment figures to The Baltimore Sun in time for publication. Seven of the 10 schools also experienced a decline in enrollment, attributed to the pandemic. Representatives from Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, College Park said they still were compiling enrollment data.

“We knew there would be some impact on enrollment and retention for the upcoming year, but it was a guessing game as to how much. I’m not confident that we were able to pinpoint how much of an impact we were going to take at the onset,” Coppin State President Anthony Jenkins told The Sun. “We’re still trying to put those pieces together, although we have a pretty good idea of where we’re going to land for the fall semester.”

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Jenkins attributed the decline to out-of-state students choosing to attend schools closer to home, dissatisfaction with remote learning and the general uncertainty around the pandemic.

Coppin is one of a few schools in the Baltimore area to implement a physical return to some classes without suffering a significant outbreak of the virus. Only 2% of about 400 students, faculty and workers returning to campus for the school’s hybrid in-person/online classes have tested positive for the virus, Jenkins said.

In July, the Maryland Board of Public Works moved to cut the University System of Maryland’s budget by $117.3 million. That included about $3.8 million in cuts to Coppin State’s budget, according to Monica West, director of the state university system’s budget office.

Last Wednesday, Coppin State announced it would continue a hiring freeze and temporary salary cuts for senior university administrators, which include Jenkins and his cabinet. Layoffs and furloughs are off the table for now, Jenkins told The Sun.

Overall, the pandemic has dealt the university a painful financial blow, but not one that Jenkins believes will be “detrimental.” It can “come out on the other side fine” with some adjustments over the next few months, Jenkins said, thanks in part to some federal aid and relatively low debt.

The federal coronavirus relief bill passed in March gave the university about $1.4 million in funding for students. Coppin State also doesn’t have as much debt as some of its sister schools, which has helped its financial position during the pandemic, Jenkins said.

The enrollment drop poses more of an issue for the university in Jenkins' eyes than the budget cuts. He worries it signals issues of access and opportunity.

“That means the pipeline to upward mobility is not working as it should,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins took over as Coppin State’s president in May, in the midst of a pandemic, hoping to boost enrollment and build upon the school’s strengths, from its nursing school to its affordability. He succeeded Maria Thompson, who left in 2019. In the long term, he hopes to increase enrollment by winning more recruiting battles with competing schools as well as improving retention efforts.

Coppin State’s criminal justice and nursing programs, business school, and science and technology offerings have helped drive enrollment, but Jenkins hopes to boost the school’s other less successful programs.

While Jenkins doesn’t know how long the coronavirus will hurt the school, he said finances weren’t why Coppin State opted to bring some students back to campus in a hybrid class model this fall.

“For many students, Coppin is their home. It’s a safe haven,” Jenkins said. “It’s a place for them to study and have consistent Wi-Fi access.”

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About 90% of the classes are online, and those that meet in person are generally those that historically have been challenging for freshmen. Residence halls are at about half capacity, with just 260 students on campus at this time, Singleton said. During the 2019 fall semester, 637 students lived on campus.

Students who spoke with The Sun all agreed that they felt safe on campus with coronavirus restrictions in place.

Starr Farrell, a junior and resident assistant, said there haven’t been many social gatherings due to the coronavirus.

Senior Hassan Reames said most students wear masks and he’s been comforted by the school’s quarantine rooms and floors for those who test positive.

“I’m a pretty social person and I talk to a lot of people on campus. Before this happened, I was usually all over campus. ... Now it’s just deserted on campus. No one’s really outside doing anything,” Reames said.

Both Farrell and Reames are taking all classes online classes, which has been an adjustment. A marketing major from Prince George’s County, Reames has a virtual biology lab class.

“It’s almost like playing Sims,” said Reames, referencing the popular video game. “At 8 o’clock in the morning, I’m half asleep and trying to play with this virtual person. It’s taking a lot to get used to.”

Some of the older professors have had issues figuring out the technology, with some not posting work yet due to technical issues, Reames said. It’s left him feeling like he is missing a lot.

Overall, the students didn’t take issue with Coppin State’s return to campus.

“It was smart. Other schools in the area have closed down. But for Coppin, because it’s so small and is a commuter school, it didn’t really hurt us," Reames said. "And for people staying on campus, you never know what someone’s situation is at home. Sometimes when you’re physically at school, even though you might not be in class, you’re more focused on school.”

The University System of Maryland school reporting the next largest enrollment decline was the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, down 8.4%, followed by Frostburg State University, down 6.2%, and Salisbury University, down 5.9%. University of Baltimore and Towson University reported decreased enrollment of 4.9% and 3.5%, respectively, and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science saw a 1% dip. The University of Maryland, Baltimore County saw enrollment decline 0.8%.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore was the only system school to report an enrollment gain, up 4.5%.

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The University of Maryland, College Park hasn’t released updated fall 2020 enrollment numbers yet. Bowie State University is expecting enrollment similar to last year, but doesn’t have final numbers, spokesperson Damita Chambers said.

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The Sun also requested data from other local colleges and universities. The private Maryland Institute College of Art was the only school to report a larger drop in enrollment than Coppin State at 12.3%, down to 1,941 students from 2,214 last year, according to school spokesperson Emily Chappell.

Others that declined include St. John’s College, Annapolis, down 3.8%; Loyola University Maryland, down 2.2%; andNotre Dame of Maryland University, down 1.2%.

Johns Hopkins University saw the largest increase in enrollment, up 7.7%, while McDaniel College in Westminster was up 4.88% and Morgan State University was up 0.2%.

Goucher College and Hood College didn’t have data to report yet, and Stevenson University did not respond to a request for information from The Sun.

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