Higher education institutions in New Jersey are recording a general uptick in enrollment this fall, a trend that school officials attribute to improved efforts to respond to changing student needs and job market demands.
Across the U.S., total postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels, down about 1.09 million students overall and about 1.16 million undergraduates alone compared to Spring 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s most recent analysis.
Overall, community college enrollment grew slightly this past spring, up 0.5% (22,000 students) from Spring 2022 after large declines in the previous two years, thanks to a growing number of younger students who are primarily dual enrolled high school students and freshmen, the report found.
After pandemic-driven declines began to level off last fall, the number of undergraduates at public and private nonprofit four-year schools fell by 0.5% and 0.2%, respectively, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Within New Jersey, enrollment at public two-year colleges stood at 99,366 for the Spring 2023 semester, up from 95,314 in Spring 2022 but well below the 123,399 enrollees in Spring 2019.
At public four-year institutions, overall enrollment last spring was 164,577, slightly up from 164,163 in Spring 2022. For the Spring 2019 semester, enrollment was 171,074. Enrollment at private four-year schools came in at 64,266 for Spring 2023, below 65,788 in Spring 2022 and 67,325 in Spring 2019, according to the report.
Published in January and May, the National Student Clearinghouse report provides national enrollment estimates based on data from over 36,000 colleges, universities and credential-granting programs, making up 97% of all American post-secondary institutions.
Generally, undergraduate enrollment at colleges and universities has been falling for years, with the most dramatic declines during the onset of the COVID-19 crisis.
Between 2010 and 2021, that number fell 15%, about 2.6 million fewer students. Fifty-eight percent of the decrease was over the decade before the pandemic, with 42% between the Fall 2019 and Fall 2021 terms.
From 2025 onward, the number of undergrads on U.S. campuses is expected to decline based on slowing birth rates, the rise of online and hybrid learning, and more students pursuing educational opportunities abroad.
Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said, “With the pandemic now behind us, a new set of factors appears to be preventing students from returning to campuses.”
According to Shapiro, those obstacles could include growing concerns about the value of a college degree or about incurring debt to get one, leading students to reduce their time and financial commitment, which may help explain the difference between enrollment at two-year schools versus four-year institutions.
Labor market factors, like low unemployment and high wages, could also be making the cost of college seem too high for potential students, he said. Additionally, mental health and family concerns may be playing a role, Shapiro said.
According to a poll conducted earlier this year by The Wall Street Journal, 56% of Americans think a four-year degree isn’t worth the cost, tying their skepticism to mounting student debt and the belief that tangible job skills aren’t always gained in college.
Despite the fact that college grads earn between $630,000 to $900,000 more over their lifetimes than people without degrees, fewer high school graduates are enrolling in college right away, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Between 2010 and 2021, the overall college enrollment rate for 18- to 24-year-olds decreased from 41% to 38%.
Michael Salvatore, senior vice president for administration at Kean University, said, “We can’t just count on the very traditional, typical full-time student coming in out of high school. We have to be really flexible, creative and show our innovative side.
“There are very few states in our country that will see increases in high school-age graduates over the next 10 years. So, this is really the time for higher education to make some changes in terms of being creative and innovative. Now’s the time to do it because we’re facing this clip in a couple of years. We’re all preparing for it and we’ve got to make sure that we’re connecting to students or else we’re going to see declines steadily over the next 10 to 15 years,” Salvatore added.
As the notion of the typical college student evolves, colleges and universities across New Jersey, like Kean, are adapting to serve a more diverse and adult student base by upgrading learning spaces, expanding programs, adding new pathways and strengthening industry connections.
Along with continued efforts to improve college access to high school graduates through expanded early college and career tech education, schools are seeking out other segments of the population as potential enrollees.
At Kean, Salvatore said those groups include adults who have never pursued higher education, as well as the 40.4 million Americans who attempted some college but “stopped out” before earning a degree (click here to see related story).
“I think people are starting to realize that the return on investment for higher ed is pretty significant in terms of lifetime earnings. Yes, you can get out of high school, get into a pretty quick job and start making some cash right away, but over time you’re not really preparing yourself to meet the growing needs of society,” Salvatore said. “It’s like getting a tattoo when you’re 18 or 19 and then, 20 years later, saying ‘Why did I do that?’ I think college is the same way, where you may think you should have gone way back then.
“But, the nice thing about it is the way we are meeting people where they’re at now, so no one has to say ‘Well, I’m not 19 anymore – I can’t go to college.’ We are finding ways to make it affordable, accessible and inclusive so that regardless of age, background, circumstance or perspective, we want to reengage you,” Salvatore said.
Along with adult learners and stop-outs, Kean has made strides to connect with the fastest-growing demographic in the U.S. – Hispanics – and has a population of well over 4,000 students who identify as such.
“We are completely dialed into this. We have full partnerships around this where we’re an active participant and fully engaged with this kind of caucus,” Salvatore said. “We even have programs right on our campus that are delivered fully in Spanish for your first two years of course studies.”
A longtime offering at Kean, the program gives students with limited knowledge of English a chance to develop their language skills and then continue their degree path entirely in English for the final years of their studies.
“It also attracts students to our campus because they realize one of our values here is equity and inclusivity and shows how this campus values equity in many different ways,” he explained.
Transfer students also represent an opportunity, according to Salvatore. “They are always a big part of college campuses and for us, they are a large feeder of our new students. So, we wanted to make sure we were really friendly to this population,” Salvatore explained.
“Right around the turn of the pandemic, we started building up our pathway programs and our agreements with community colleges. We started to get real serious over the past couple of years to make sure that for those students…we were friendly to them, making it easier for them to access the information, making it easy for them to see which credits we’re accepting to certain majors and certainly want to make it friendly enough to navigate how long it’s going to take to degree completion.”
He went on to say, “It’s also about meeting people where they’re at in terms of their wellness wellbeing, and also physically and financially. There are several aspects of that, so I think we’ll be in recovery for quite some time, but I’m very optimistic that we’re climbing the mountain and we know what direction we’re going in.”
As of Fall 2023, more than 17,000 students from 82 countries and 35 states are registered at Kean’s campuses in Toms River and Union, as well as online and Wenzhou-Kean University in Wenzhou, China, marking a record enrollment for the state-designated public research university. “We are currently seeing the largest enrollment we’ve had for the past three years, which we’re really excited about. We have a little over 13,000 on our U.S. campuses and then about 4,000 in China,” Salvatore said.
“We’re also seeing growth specifically with first time students coming in – this is our largest freshman class on record, breaking over 2,000 consecutively for two years and larger than last year,” he added.
The enrollment total also includes a four-year high in the number of graduate students at the university. More than 800 new graduate students are enrolled at Kean for the Fall semester, drawn by programs in areas such as genetic counseling, physical therapy, computer information systems, business, education, psychology and more.
In addition to expansive student academic support programs and robust financial aid services – including the Kean Tuition Promise program that provides qualified low-income students with an education at no cost – the university is beginning the new term with strong academic offerings.
In response to continuing interest in careers related to health care, the university also launched a School of Health and Human Performance that offers several degree programs tailored to prepare students in the fields of physical education, community health education, recreation administration, recreation therapy, athletic training and exercise science.
“They’re all existing programs, but they were housed under different colleges. Now, putting them in one place allows prospective students and families, and even employers, to take a look and see exactly what we’re offering under one house. It makes it a lot easier for everybody and there’s certainly less confusion about which programs we offer and what field they’re leading to,” said Salvatore, who credited the work of Kean President Lamont Repollet and Provost David Birdsell.
“It became very attractive for people seeking undergraduate and graduate degree programs. And then they fed the market because of our … partnerships with local area hospitals and local research firms,” Salvatore said. “I think we are able to be really attractive to prospective students looking at an affordable pathway to their dream job.”
After launching in September 2022, Salvatore said, “This is the first year we’re seeing the results of all of those programs under one roof, under one leader and connecting all of our partnerships as well.”
New activities are also helping drive interest in the school, including the introduction of eSports as a competitive club a few years ago. Since then, it has sparked exponential growth in the number of students coming to Kean to study computer science and information technology, according to Salvatore.
Arrow pointing up
At Bergen Community College, the largest community college in New Jersey, officials are also pleased with their enrollment figures this fall.
Lawrence Hlavenka Jr., a spokesperson for the Paramus-based community college, said, “The arrow has pointed up since Fall ’22 and that momentum has continued in Spring ’23 and now in fall. You almost forget that Fall 2021 was still very much a ‘pandemic semester’ – it’s hard to compare that data to now in any meaningful way.”
One of the biggest takeaways, he said, is “we’re consistently growing again.”
As of the most current figures available, Bergen is reporting an enrollment of 11,527, though the school has some additional start dates coming up in September and October that will increase those numbers, according to Hlavenka.
“Enrollment has risen approximately 6% year over year. The initiatives we’ve created to support students are working. We’re especially seeing that in our continuing student enrollment. There, students are returning in higher numbers than before – that’s really significant for retention and getting students on a path to earning a degree, transferring to a four-year college or entering the workforce. Again, seeing higher numbers of continuing students return this fall represents a really terrific sign,” Hlavenka said.
“We’re really focused on innovation, moving the College forward and supporting the needs of students through holistic and non-holistic measures. I’d point to our focus on belongingness at Bergen as a key effort. Simple things such as installing comfortable furniture in high-traffic spots tells students that we don’t want their Bergen experience to be transient. We want them to come to campus, attend class and take advantage of the many programs we offer. They are a part of something here. I have no doubt that this mentality has helped support retention,” he explained.
Post-pandemic, Hlavenka said the college was focused on evolving with the changing times to implement strategic efforts that have “a direct impact on students and their success,” which includes opening the Center for Online Learning with the help of a $670,000 grant from the county and transforming Bergen Community College at the Meadowlands into an innovation hub.
“On the program side, we saw an opening in the information technology and business space – think of where we are in the world and the number of jobs that come along with it. That led us to revitalizing our Meadowlands location as an ‘innovation center’ that features signature academic programs in areas such as cybersecurity. We have installed Bloomberg terminals and an electronic ticker tape that brings the ‘real world’ of international markets right into the classroom. We have also built a gaming lab that will serve as the proving ground for future developers while also serving as the homebase for our e-sports athletes,” Hlavenka said.
At Bergen, career-minded programs in health professions, business administration and the sciences remain popular and most students aim to transfer to a four-year institution after graduation, he said.
“That’s why we maintain such robust offerings in both career and transfer programs – there’s no ‘one kind’ of Bergen student. Needs are individualized and we have a responsibility to help them develop a unique path for success,” added Hlavenka.
At Stockton University, the Galloway Township-based public institution welcomed 2,677 new students this semester, including first-time, transfer and graduate students – however, officials noted, the Fall 2023 enrollment numbers are not yet finalized as there is still time to add and drop courses.
For Fall 2023, Stockton continued to see strong interest and enrollment from first-year and graduate students, but noticed a slight drop in transfer student enrollment, and is down 3% overall in total headcount compared to Fall 2022, according to Robert Heinrich, vice president for enrollment management at the public university.
However, over the past two recruitment cycles, Fall 2022 and Fall 2023, Stockton University has received more applications, he said. “Prospective students and their families also are excited to see Stockton in person and we are observing many more students visiting our campus and attending tours, open houses and Instant Decision Day events,” he said.
When it comes to challenges that higher ed has faced when it comes to enrollment, Heinrich said, “Students are applying to a larger number of overall institutions and are being provided competing financial aid/merit offers. With these multiple offers, it’s more difficult to predict overall yield based on historical ratios.”
Unfortunately, amid the rising cost of postsecondary education – which includes tuition, fees, housing and food – it is becoming “financially unachievable for some families even with the generous need-based aid packages that students may qualify for,” he added.
Lastly, Heinrich said, students may not be academically prepared due to COVID-related learning interruptions in high school, “which has impacted student success, retention, and persistence.”
In response to shifting enrollment trends, Heinrich said Stockton has taken a number of steps in recent years, such as prioritizing its partnerships with New Jersey’s community colleges and high schools.
“Our Transfer Pathways program offers conditional dual admission to Stockton and 12 community college partners, providing students a direct route to a bachelor’s degree and easy transfer of credits. We have also expanded our high school dual credit program to over 50 high school partners and had nearly 2,000 students earning Stockton credit while in high school,” said Heinrich. “Stockton has also added new academic programs to meet workforce demands, including a bachelor’s of esports management, a degree in digital studies, and new full degree programs in accounting, business analytics, business administration and finance.”
Better career outcomes
At Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken – one of the country’s oldest technological schools – officials are also reporting positive trends as classes begin.
According to President Nariman Farvardin, the incoming cohort of 1,085 new undergraduates is “an intentionally modest increase over last year to ensure tight alignment of our overall enrollment with our campus infrastructure, while improving admissions selectivity and making progress on other enrollment goals.”
With the addition of the new class, Stevens’ number of new and continuing undergraduates reached 4,094 for Fall 2023. The campus also has 1,719 new graduate students, bringing the total graduate enrollment to 4,821, including 85 new Ph.D. students, according to the school.
Cindy Chin, vice president for enrollment management at Stevens, said, “A few factors driving our enrollment demand are the university’s STEM focus, relevant academic programs and experiential learning, and superior career outcomes for our graduating students. Stevens continues to be proactive to the needs of students and industry.”
“The university is continuously agile in addressing the changing needs of students – from recruitment through post-graduation. A few examples that come to mind are the introduction of Early Action to the undergraduate application process, the completion of the new University Center Complex, additional health and support services, and new and enhanced technology on campus,” she said.
At Ramapo College of New Jersey this semester, unofficially, the public liberal arts college in Mahwah has 1,025 first-year undergraduates, up 20% from Fall 2022, and 316 incoming graduate students, a 4% increase from Fall 2022. Overall, Ramapo’s fall 2023 enrollment is 5,349. That includes 4,840 undergraduates, which is a 1% increase over fall 2022.
According to Director of Admissions Anthony Dovi, the freshmen class is 20% larger than Fall 2022 and is its second largest incoming class ever. In addition, the new class self-identifies as 48% non-white, making it the most diverse class in the 54-year-old college’s history. And the proportion of first-generation students – 46% – is also the highest the college has ever seen, he said.
“The college decision process is becoming more a family process throughout the entire cycle. As the demographic shifts continue to occur, we see a significant increase in students and their families engaging in multiple touch points throughout the process. At Ramapo, over 50% of our applicant pool indicated that they are the first in their family to attend college – what is more widely known as First Generation students. Thus, no one in their family has experience of any aspect of college admissions before, so there’s more of a desire for families to be engaged in the process,” he said.
As part of an effort to support first-generation students and their families, Ramapo opened a student center last fall that seeks to serve the needs and population of these students, as well as future first-gen enrollees.
Just a few of the offerings at the First-Generation Student Center include a summer bridge program to help students transition from high school to college, as well as a dedicated assistant director to lead student programming efforts that cultivate a sense of belonging to Ramapo. There’s also training for faculty and staff to increase awareness and better support experiences of first-generation students and their families.
Ramapo’s Nursing program remains the college’s most competitive and most heavily enrolled first-year student program, which, Dovi said, school officials believe is due to its strength and reputation. “It is also indicative of students’ desires to find employment in what we know is a field with shortages. Nurses understand that upon graduation, there is likely to be a strong starting salary and job for them, which helps to support the significant demand in the program,” Dovi said.
“There is a growing focus from families on five-year degree programs and our enrollment patterns follow that demand. More than 10% of this year’s incoming class was accepted into a 4+1 pathway program, meaning they are beginning in a major where there is a clearly outlined curricular path to earn two degrees in five years. That growth is up from 2021 and 2022, and we anticipate it will reach 15% of the incoming class in the next two years,” he stated.
According to Christopher Romano, vice president of strategic enrollment, outreach and engagement, the school also remains focused on making sure students are well prepared for the workforce. “In response to feedback we receive directly from employers about the need for stronger resumes and for students to improve interpersonal skills when interviewing, we require career preparation for every single graduate in every major. Every Ramapo graduate must have a certified approved resume and complete a mock interview before graduation,” Romano said.
Amid growing demand for data and computer skills, Ramapo launched the Center for Data, Mathematical and Computational Sciences in 2022, which is an interdisciplinary collaboration between all three programs. Along with a lecture series and guest speakers, the center coordinates experiential learning opportunities for students that provides them with real-world insight from experts and hands-on education.
“We also offer a 4+1 program (B.S. to M.S.) in these areas so that undergraduate students can complete two degrees in five years and be ready with their graduate education to transition successfully into their careers,” Romano said.
Earlier this year, Ramapo also launched a 2+2+1 agreement with the County College of Morris, a first-of-its-kind partnership in New Jersey that allows students to pursue an associate’s degree at CCM and then transfer to Ramapo, where they can earn a bachelor’s and master’s in data science.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 12:56 p.m. ET Sept. 18, 2023, to correct the spelling of Robert Heinrich’s name.
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