Freshman enrollment at the University of Colorado Boulder is down significantly more than expected for the fall semester, eliciting budget concerns among university leaders Thursday and what one CU regent described as “the billion dollar question.”
Where did those students go?
First-year enrollment has dropped across all CU campuses, a pattern university officials said mirrored trends across the country as the pandemic has warped the traditional college experience.
But the declines on the Boulder campus — freshman numbers are down 10% more than forecast earlier this summer — are most concerning to CU leadership.
New freshman enrollment at CU Boulder declined 12.3% from last year, dipping from 7,113 students to 6,235, according to a presentation during Thursday’s CU Board of Regents meeting. CU officials sounded the alarm about enrollment last week, but didn’t announce numbers at the time.
Enrollment also dropped significantly compared to last year among international students, with undergraduate international student enrollment plummeting 22% on the Boulder campus and international graduate student enrollment falling 11.4%.
CU Boulder, the largest higher education institution in Colorado, will lose $25.2 million more than campus leaders anticipated in their June budget projections due to those enrollment drops, for a total budget hit of around $66 million below where the school’s budget was last year — largely due to the drastic toll COVID-19 has taken on higher education finances.
“Where did these students go?” asked CU Regent Jack Kroll, D-Denver, during the presentation. “Are we looking at some sort of massive amount nationally of students that just forewent a college education? That’s troubling not just for us but society as a whole.”
Regent Sue Sharkey, R-Castle Rock, wondered whether some of that drop-off could be attributed to students taking a gap year amid the uncertainty of college life during a pandemic.
“It may be that next year, knock on wood, things with the pandemic will be under control and enrollment numbers may be really high for freshmen because you’ve got the freshmen coming ordinarily plus this year’s freshmen who took a gap year,” Sharkey said. “Let’s hope for that.”
Patrick O’Rourke, CU Boulder’s chief operation officer, said a significantly higher number of students than usual decided to defer their enrollment for the fall 2020 semester, meaning they asked the university to hold their place for up to one year without the need to reapply.
Last year, 342 freshmen deferred compared to 1,247 students this year — a 264% increase.
“The challenge will be if we have a super-sized class for next year, where do we put them all?” Kroll asked.
O’Rourke agreed that the potential bumper crop of 2021 freshmen was an issue worth following.
“That raises challenges because you have to consider what are the number of deferrals going to be when admitting next year to get capacity right,” O’Rourke said.
Next year’s challenges aside, many on the Boulder campus are engrossed with the current work of testing, contact-tracing and managing increasing COVID-19 cases among the campus population.
During Thursday’s meeting, CU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano said the campus currently has the capacity to run about 1,500 tests a day but hopes to double that to 3,000 tests per day by next week if they’re able to secure the equipment. The fight for COVID-19 testing equipment between institutions across the nation can cause lags as organizations wait to secure the goods.
On Thursday, CU Boulder updated its testing findings for the prior day, confirming 41 new coronavirus infections on campus for a total of 174 cases since classes began Aug. 24.
Campus officials have been quick to say caseloads have been manageable so far with 35 students in on-campus isolation out of a possible 249 quarantine spaces.
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