UK campus hinges on return to normalcy in attracting prospective students

Tour guide Emoni Dix walks a tour towards the Jacobs Science Building on Thursday, April 15, 2021 at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, Kentucky. 

Rayleigh Deaton

Dubbed the “living room of campus,” the University of Kentucky Gatton Student Center is a carnival of campus life. Students congregate on the social staircase, eating lunch, studying and chatting with friends, a cheerful cacophony of sounds filling the atrium. 

Around every half hour, a group of prospective students and their parents emerges from the Visitor Center down the hall, following a blue-shirted tour guide on a 90-minute trip around campus. Mostly high school juniors and seniors, these students face a difficult choice, one that will most likely determine the trajectory of their life: where to spend their college years. 

This decision is hard enough in a typical year, much more so in the midst of a pandemic. In addition to sports, majors and tuition costs, COVID-19 safety is at the forefront of parents’ and students’ minds when looking at higher education, and colleges know this. 

COVID testing and vaccines have become amenities for students, helping to assure families that the administration is doing everything in its power to create a safe environment for living and learning. UK recently announced that it would offer vaccinations to 21,000 admitted students and their families, even if the students do not choose to attend UK in the fall.

In the wake of UK president Eli Capilouto’s announcement that the fall 2021 semester would be a return to normal operations, students and faculty have lived and worked under the assumption that the days of “Zoom University” are numbered. This optimistic sentiment is echoed by the UK tour guides, students who work for the university’s Visitor Center. 

Surprisingly little is mentioned on tours about the changes COVID has caused at UK, but when tour guides do turn to the subject, there is an underlying assumption that those changes will not be present next semester. Tour guides focus on the promised return to normalcy, assuming most if not all COVID restrictions will be lifted. At the same time, parents are assured that the university offers students an “inherently safe environment,” as one tour guide put it. 

Similarly, prospective students and parents seem relatively unphased by the idea of coming to college in a pandemic. 

Tyree and Elizabeth Toohey, a mother and daughter from Bourbon County, Ky., visited the UK campus for a recent Admitted Students Day. Currently a junior in high school, Elizabeth Toohey plans on attending nursing school after graduation in 2022, and UK is on the short list of her college choices.

“It’s close to home; it’s really big, and it’s not what I’m used to, because I’m from a small town,” Toohey said. 

She plans on living on campus during her first year and is not particularly apprehensive about attending college in the time of COVID.

“I feel like everything’s calming down a little bit, so it’s not a huge concern,” she said.

High school junior Drew Chastain and his parents Andrew and Denise Chastain toured the campus and were excited about life at UK, one of several universities the family is considering. That morning, they had driven in from their home in Atlanta and were headed to Knoxville, Tn., to tour the University of Tennessee after stopping in Lexington. Drew Chastain is planning on majoring in business, although he is unsure about which specific path. 

Like the Tooheys, the Chastain family seemed unconcerned about their son going off to college during the pandemic. 

“He’s been in-person in high school, at least since January, so we’re pretty comfortable,” Denise Chastain said.

With the exception of masks and social distancing, this semester’s recruitment events look quite similar to a “normal” year’s. Last year, all orientation and Admitted Student days were either cancelled or moved to an online format. 

The freshman class of 2024 was fewer in numbers than in previous years, and the university is wanting to get back on track with the class of 2025. 

In a statement to the Kernel, UK’s Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management Christine Harper said that the university expects an incoming freshman class of more than 5,000 students. 

“That would be consistent with the last few years (with the exception of this current academic year) when we’ve averaged between 5,000 and 5,500 students each fall,” Harper said.

She said the current freshman class that enrolled in fall 2020 checked in at just under 5,000 students. As one might expect, the dip in numbers is due to COVID, but Harper told the Kernel that UK was not surprised.

“[It was] a decrease we expected and planned for that was directly the result of COVID-19 and families making tough choices in the face of the challenges associated with the pandemic,” she said.

In spite of the downward trend seen this past year, Harper said the goal now is to get back to pre-pandemic numbers, and she is confident UK will do just that. 

“We have over the last several years, on average, been increasing enrollment, a trend we hope and expect to continue this fall. That’s part of our obligation to Kentucky to educate and graduate more students to help grow Kentucky’s economy,” Harper said. “In fact, we had a record overall enrollment this fall of more than 31,000 students – a reflection of our consistent, strategic growth in recent years.” 

Adjustments like cancelling the ACT/SAT requirements have helped UK and other colleges maintain a level of interest from potential students only slightly diminished by the pandemic. According to UK’s enrollment statistics site, the numbers for current first-time students took a hit this year, dropping from 5,348 in 2019-2020 to 4,891 in 2021-2022.

However, the current total number of enrolled students is the highest is has been since 2011, rising from 30,545 in 2019-2020 to 31,110 in 2020-2021. This number has been trending upward in recent years, according to the table.

Marketing from UK and tour guides highlights the “normal” college experience to prospective families visiting campus. Though enrollment levels for first-year students dipped this past year, staff members like Harper are fully confident that the emphasis on returning to regularity will appeal to students and parents, helping to rebuild those numbers.