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Education

As higher education enrollment numbers lower nationwide, trends at Maryland universities and colleges vary

University of Maryland, Baltimore County student Alex Bauserman withdrew from his classes in fall 2020 and didn’t return the next semester.

He had signed up for classes with the hopes of conducting some coursework in person, but a diminished social situation — he had no roommate, there were no clubs to join, and all his classes moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic — led him to take a year off from the university and pursue community college courses in the meantime.

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“So there was just all kinds of things going on. ... It just makes it all too much,” Bauserman said about his initial semester. “So I’m just watching the events going on around the world. Like you have the pandemic going on. You have civil unrest at the time, the upcoming elections, all of this different stuff. And it feels kind of overwhelming.”

Bauserman isn’t alone in taking a step back from higher education — fewer and fewer students are signing up for college classes nationwide. But in Maryland, changes in enrollment aren’t as uniform.

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Enrollment trends vary at individual universities, both public and private, across the state from 2019 to 2021. Several schools in the University System of Maryland, such as UMBC and Coppin State University, saw declines in enrollment. However, some institutions, like Morgan State University, defied national patterns and experienced boosts in their student ranks. And at the state’s flagship school, the University of Maryland, College Park, both undergraduate and freshman enrollment continued to increase.

Nationwide trends have shown decreases in enrollment since the Great Recession, but the decline became steeper with the pandemic. In fall 2020, the National Center for Education Statistics reported, about 19 million students attended college, with roughly 300,000 of those students in Maryland. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that enrollment losses across the country during the pandemic amount to a decline of 5.1% — meaning an expected 938,000 students did not sign up for college classes from fall 2019 to fall 2021. Over just the past year, undergraduate enrollment decreased by 3.1%, which translates to nearly half a million students.

Ross Santy, who works with the National Center for Education Statistics, said these numbers do not directly correlate to a drop in students interested in pursuing higher education degrees. Rather, they depict a variety of situations, including some who interrupted their college careers with the intention to return. Morgan State University’s Kara Turner, the vice president for enrollment management and student success, said she heard of some students waiting until they could get the full, in-person experience while others took a mental health break.

“People hear, ‘Enrollment’s down,’ and the thought is everybody’s dropping out of college. I don’t think that’s necessarily what’s going on,” Santy said. “That’s what we’re going to have to see — how much of it is an interruption versus how much of it was sort of a reset and somebody who was thinking about college and decided that another path was better.”

Across both public and private schools in Maryland, enrollment numbers have varied.

Coppin State University experienced a 22% decrease in undergraduate enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2021. The University of Maryland saw a 13% increase in its freshman class in the same time period. McDaniel College had a 5% enrollment increase in 2020 along with a record-size freshman class. However, come fall 2021, freshman enrollment declined for the institution.

The Johns Hopkins University, Towson University and the University of Baltimore had straight declines in undergraduate enrollment since 2019, with University of Baltimore seeing a stark 23.5% drop.

UMBC Vice Provost for Enrollment Yvette Mozie-Ross said that despite the university’s undergraduate enrollment decreases, the school had its largest class of first-time students this past fall. Additionally, the university implemented in fall 2020 a new program called Finish Line to help recruit former students and put them on track to graduate.

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On the flip side, Morgan State University saw enrollment dip in 2020 but rebound in 2021. After a decrease in freshman enrollment numbers for 2020, from 1,365 in 2019 to 1,202, the freshman class size nearly doubled the following year with 2,288 students, a record.

“We are looking like we’re going to see an even bigger class and bigger enrollment for this fall,” Morgan State’s Turner said.

Turner said the jump came in part from partnerships with companies such as IBM, Lincoln Financial Group and the NFL; larger financial aid packages; and — notably — the increased buzz around HBCUs.

Following Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Turner said, students wanted to attend colleges where they felt physically and mentally safe. After Kamala Harris, a graduate of Howard University, was elected vice president of the United States, students were able to see more HBCU graduates on the national stage, Turner said. (Still, such an effect was not seen at fellow HBCU Coppin State.)

Turner also credited a record $40 million donation from MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, in 2020 for helping attract media attention.

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The university is hiring more faculty members and renting more space off campus to accommodate housing needs. Morgan State is in the process of trying to acquire land in East Baltimore to construct a satellite campus as more students enroll at the university.

“Morgan, in particular, is really on the rise,” Turner said.

Loyola University of Maryland plans to welcome its largest, most diverse freshman class this fall. When the pandemic hit, Loyola moved to complete virtual learning, which Eric Nichols, vice president for enrollment management, correlates with a decline in enrollment numbers. In both fall 2020 and 2021, the university was off projected numbers by about 1%.

Loyola launched the Charm City Promise Program last year, which vowed to work with admitted Pell Grant-eligible students in Baltimore City and meet 100% of their financial needs, including room and board. Through this program, Nichols said, enrollment of Baltimore City students has increased 87%. He said the program will continue indefinitely, but fewer students may be admitted to the program depending on available funds.

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“We’re hoping that perhaps donors to the university will contribute to helping to fund the initiative so that we can continue to offer it in the future,” Nichols said. “Potentially, philanthropy will help to ensure that happens.”

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Community colleges experienced larger drops in enrollment compared with four-year universities during the pandemic. In fall 2020, student ranks plummeted 10% year over year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Transfer enrollments, which include students who moved from community colleges to four-year universities, also dropped, according to research associate Hee Sun Kim.

Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said the drop can be attributed in part to the fact that minorities, who make up a large portion of community college enrollment, were disparately harmed by the pandemic.

CCBC actually met 103% of its credit enrollment in fall 2020, meaning the institution was able to retain its students as well as incorporate more folks into the student body, Kurtinitis said. The college had launched its Tuition Free program in the summer, which allowed 84% of all 45,000 students to attend with full or partial scholarships. Kurtinitis said CCBC was also aware that some students struggled with internet access or technology, so the college used mask mandates, plexiglass and smaller class sizes to keep the campus open instead of turning to online learning.

CCBC’s fall 2021 data does show enrollment to be down 5%, but Kurtinitis said she already has a “battle plan” in the works to bring the numbers back up. The plan includes working with high schools, increasing online classroom capacity and remaining cautious when it comes to public health. Recently, CCBC returned to mask mandates in classrooms and in groups of 10 or more.

“We’re determined,” Kurtinitis said. “We’re going to come roaring out of this pandemic and reclaim our little piece of the world here.”

For the record

An earlier version of this story misstated University of Maryland, Baltimore County enrollment figures. UMBC's undergraduate enrollment is down.


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