After being crushed by COVID, college enrollment continues to decline. Nationally, according to the latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, postsecondary institutions have lost nearly 1.3 million students since spring 2020. New Jersey has not escaped the slowdown, according to some reports, but officials at some higher educational institutions are optimistic.
“As an urban, comprehensive community college, it’s been challenging for our students to pursue higher education,” according to Christopher Reber, president of Hudson County Community College. “We saw a huge loss in the fall of 2020 when we went virtual, with a 40% decline in new student enrollment,” although continuing student enrollment did not suffer as much. Since then, however, retention and recruitment have been growing steadily, he noted.
“We’re currently up about 4% overall, with a 20% increase in new students,” Reber added. “We believe that we will ultimately recover to pre-pandemic numbers and will then grow further. Our continuing education and workforce development courses and certificate programs have also continued to thrive post-pandemic. We’ve established entrepreneurial programs with some unions, and with the New Jersey Reentry Corp. [a nonprofit agency that aims to remove barriers to employment for people returning from jail or prison].”
The mix of students continues to be fairly consistent, according to Lisa Dougherty, Hudson’s vice president for student affairs and enrollment. “We are getting more high school students taking college-level classes, but about 62% of our student body is ‘traditional age,’ with about 36% to 39% over 25 years old.”
HCC, like other educational institutions, has embraced digital delivery. “We are working on growing our online courses and, since the pandemic, have improved our delivery,” explained Reber. “We also began offering ‘synchronous’ online learning, where everyone is together at the same time through a virtual connection; but we are continuing with fully online (asynchronous) courses, as well as in-person classes.”
He’s also seeing more hybrid courses, where classes meet “on the ground” sometimes, and remotely (synchronous) or online (asynchronous) at other times. “Federal stimulus and other funds have enabled us to invest millions of dollars in our North Hudson and Journal Square campuses,” Reber said. “This has enabled us to help grow enrollment and provide more access to students, regardless of their location.”
Hudson Community College has also bolstered its student services, Dougherty said. “Basically every service a student needs is now available online,” she said. “They used to have to show up on campus to take tests or pay bills, for example, but now everything can be done online, including counseling, or applying for financial aid.”
Reber is optimistic about the future. “The college and the community came together to focus on student success,” he said. “We’ve removed barriers so students can access our courses and complete their programs, while we’ve reduced fees and enhanced ESL (English as a second language) and other developmental programs. During the pandemic, for example, we launched the Hudson Scholars program [which provides proactive advisement, financial stipends and early academic intervention] and we continue to scale it. The administration, faculty and staff are all working together on retention and providing more access to all of the community.”
Administrators at other New Jersey institutions are also upbeat. “Compared to Fall 2019, our Fall 2022 new undergraduate student enrollment has increased by 4% but during that same period our undergraduate first-year applications increased by 19%,” said Cindy Chin, vice president for enrollment management at Stevens Institute of Technology. “The demand for a Stevens education is growing, though we are focused on offering an excellent student experience and do not want to significantly increase enrollments. Fortunately, STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education and professions are attractive for students, and as such we are benefiting from our focus.”
She noted that the institution is “more flexible in our delivery, such as remote offerings in case of illness,” but Chin added that “undergraduate students are craving in-person delivery, especially since they experienced the COVID disruptions while in high school.”
Institutions like Rowan University also saw a COVID-driven enrollment dip, but soon bounced back. According to Provost-Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Tony Lowman, “Rowan’s reputation as a Top 100 public research institution has spurred a lot of interest over the past few years. We continue to see an upward trend. We had a small dip during the pandemic (from 19,678 students in the fall of 2020 to 19,080 in the fall of 2021), but we are back on track. The Chronicle of Higher education has ranked Rowan as being the third-fastest growing university in the country from 2010 to 2020.”
He said the university’s “commitment of offering high quality programs at an affordable price really resonates with people in today’s economy, particularly our new workforce-related credential offerings in areas such as cannabis and wind energy.”
The growth of Rowan’s two medical schools and introduction of a veterinary school has also been a draw, he added. “We are also seeing enrollment in our online programs grow. We have worked hard in diversifying our offerings and making attaining a degree more flexible for professionals who are working. We are also seeing a push to hybrid learning with an emphasis on inclusion of experiential education to complement the in-class learning. We focus on practical, experiential education in the most in high-demand disciplines.”
Rowan will continue to focus on developing “alternate pathways” to getting a degree, and “our partnerships with the Rowan Colleges and other community colleges, along with our growing online platform will broaden our pool of learners and allow for multiple entry points into Rowan along with making it easy to ‘stack’ credentials needed,” said Lowman.
At the New Jersey Institute of Technology, enrollment is up 24% over the past 10 years and, in the most recent fall semester, the institute passed the 12,000 mark for the first time, according to NJIT President Teik Lim. “In addition, applications for admission this year are 22% above last year’s total at this time.
He said NJIT “has enjoyed continued enrollment growth, even throughout the pandemic, because students and their parents understand the return on investment that comes with an NJIT education. There is tremendous industry demand for STEM graduates, and the careers they pursue are both lucrative and intellectually stimulating. In addition, NJIT’s reputation has grown with the success of our graduates and the numerous accolades we have received.”
While more colleges and universities began offering distance learning options in response to COVID-19, NJIT had previously pioneered fully online and partial, or hybrid, online degree programs “as part of the university’s vision of a global campus,” he added. “Prior to the pandemic, NJIT created a new learning delivery model – the Converged Learning Model – that blurred the lines between online and in-person learning experiences.”
When the pandemic hit, NJIT immediately scaled up the initiative. “These innovations helped move almost half of all classes to a CLM, and during the pandemic more than 70% of undergraduate students still had a safe, in-person experience,” according to Lim. “We also have added new programs, such as our Master’s in Artificial Intelligence, because it is critical to assure that our curricula and programs are linked to what is happening in industry.”