With the COVID-19 pandemic driving down enrollment at many colleges and universities across the nation, Westminster’s McDaniel College has bucked that trend, welcoming its largest first-year class and seeing enrollment growth of about 5%.
That growth sets McDaniel apart from several other colleges and universities in Maryland. Seven University System of Maryland schools, as well as private schools Maryland Institute College of Art, St. John’s College in Annapolis, Loyola University Maryland, and Notre Dame of Maryland University all have reported declining enrollment from the previous fall.
Schools across the country have seen increases in deferred enrollment and leaves of absence taken due to the pandemic, which can impact enrollment numbers, according to Michael Osborn, a vice president and senior analyst with Moody’s Investors Service.
McDaniel, a private liberal-arts college, has 3,029 graduate and undergraduate students enrolled this fall, up 4.88% from 2,888 in fall 2019, said Cheryl Knauer, McDaniel’s director of public relations. Fueled by the largest first-year class in the school’s history, undergraduate enrollment grew from 1,680 to 1,818, marking the first time the school has had more than 1,800 undergraduates enrolled, Knauer said.
This is in spite of the pandemic, to which McDaniel responded by offering a mix of in-person and online class, as well as hybrids of the two. About 65% to 70% of students remain on campus, a dip from the usual 85% or so, according to Janelle Holmboe, the college’s vice president for enrollment.
“For a college like McDaniel to have grown their enrollment in a year when many other colleges are struggling is exceptional,” said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling, based in Arlington, Virginia.
Through Monday, 17 members of McDaniel’s campus community had tested positive out of a total of 2,310 tests conducted since Aug. 14.
“Larger, more comprehensive” and wealthier schools with more national or international appeal are maintaining enrollment numbers during the pandemic better than their regional peers, Osborn said. Locally, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — ranked the No. 9 university in the country by U.S. News & World Report — reported a 7.7% increase in enrollment this fall. For small private colleges without a national appeal, the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing enrollment issues, Osborn said.
With many schools moving to reduce or even eliminate on-campus housing capacity and moving classes predominantly online, many students are taking leaves of absence or deferring enrollment to wait until things become more normal, Osborn said. Some are making these decisions for health reasons, Hawkins said, while others want to live closer to home in case something bad happens.
“Students are concerned about what going to college actually means right now,” Hawkins said.
Due to the economic impacts of the pandemic, many families are also struggling more than previously to afford the cost of enrollment, Hawkins said.
So why has McDaniel, without the resources of many elite private schools, been able to grow its student body in such a difficult period?
If you ask McDaniel’s Holmboe, it was engaging with students and families in a personal way, as well as “meeting students where they were” in terms of class options, among other factors.
As for classes, Holmboe said McDaniel tried to be as flexible as possible in terms of the types of courses offered. Just 5% of classes are taught in-person, 37% are taught online and 58% are offered in a hybrid format, Knauer said.
“The fact that we did that and were incredibly transparent about how campus was going to be when students returned helped families feel safe about sending their students back to campus,” Holmboe said.
The school made “tactical moves” like offering monthly conversations with hundreds of parents of admitted students to help them learn more about what to expect if their children enrolled, Holmboe said. McDaniel also opted to continue sending out hand-signed congratulation letters to admitted students and ensured someone was always picking up the phone during the pandemic when many other schools didn’t, Holmboe said.
“That sounds small, but [many families] commented on fact that out of all the schools they called, we were one of the only ones who had a live person picking up the phone,” Holmboe said. “Maintaining that commitment to the personal nature of the work we do was really important.”
Hawkins thinks this could have played a role in boosting McDaniel’s enrollment.
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“At a time when students are increasingly isolated from the college recruitment process in terms of human contact, it’s possible that extra personal touch helped appeal to students who might have been looking for some sort of human contact, as we all are,” Hawkins said.
McDaniel was also concerned that the pandemic would disproportionately hurt students of color and first-generation college students, so it doubled down on its diversity efforts, Holmboe said. The school became more racially diverse and saw a 10 percentage point increase in the past year in Pell Grant-eligible students , those who generally have “exceptional financial need,” Holmboe said. Nearly 50% of the first-year class identified as people of color, Knauer said.
The school also made a conscious effort to reach those without Wi-Fi access for socioeconomic or geographic reasons, including a mailing for admitted students day that included a video that could be viewed without internet access, Holmboe said.
Hawkins and Holmboe both said McDaniel’s smaller size also may have played a role in its increased enrollment.
“Because we’re a smaller institution, our ability to be more connected with students helped us,” Holmboe said.
With many students wanting to stay closer to home, the school’s proximity to the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metro areas might have also helped buoy enrollment, Hawkins said.
“Smaller colleges seem to have had greater success in fending off some of the worst COVID-related struggles with student on campus," Hawkins said. "So it’s possible that the small campus feel, again located within a fairly short distance [of D.C. and Baltimore], given students preference for staying at home, might make for a sweet spot McDaniel falls in.”