Despite projected drop in enrollment, UK’s freshman class remains steady

Students filtered in by K Teams at Big Blue U at Kroger Field in Lexington, Ky. on Saturday, August 23, 2014. Big Blue U is the annual K Week kickoff. Photo by Tessa Lighty | Staff

Sarah Michels

Contrary to earlier projections, enrollment for first-time students at UK has barely taken a hit for the fall 2020 semester. As of Aug. 10, first-time enrollment stood at a little over 5,000 students, according to UK spokesperson Jay Blanton.

When creating this school year’s budget, UK administrators estimated a significant decrease in new enrollment – a freshman class of 4,500, a 22 percent reduction from a pre-pandemic projection that estimated 5,750 incoming students.

Provost David Blackwell shared the decreased estimation at UK’s Board of Trustees meeting in May. The university had recently announced that it would reopen in the fall and had pushed back the enrollment confirmation deadline to June 1 to give high school seniors more time to decide on their fall plans.

With the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the economy, the university wasn’t sure whether students would still want to attend UK in the upcoming fall and spring semester. Other options, such as deferring a year or attending a community college, might have been preferable.

Christine Harper, associate provost for enrollment management, said that it was difficult for her office to model enrollment numbers with no precedent for this situation.

“You go to a four-year institution because of the residential experience and the community and the engagement,” Harper said. “That’s what (incoming freshmen) want, that’s what they’re looking forward to.”

5,000 incoming students is still a drop from previous years. At this point in the recruiting cycle last year, UK had 5,400 confirmed attendees, and 5,077 for the same period in the fall of 2018.

Harper said that there are several reasons why prospective students chose not to enroll.

Many universities, facing fears of low enrollment, offered more spots than normal to students on their waitlist, some of whom may have planned to attend UK as their second choice.

Also, more high school graduates accepted into UK entered the military than normal, Harper said, which is common during any economic disruption.

A few students, but not many, chose to defer, said Harper. Deferral was likely less attractive this year because the typical gap year experience is complicated by nearly impossible international travel and a struggling job market.

Blanton said that enrollment numbers will not be finalized until after the first census date, the day the add/drop period ends.

Harper said that the change in enrollment numbers shouldn’t change student fees or anything related to student services; if anything, UK might use the money to hire more people. With the state also experiencing deficits, which could lead to additional cuts to institutions like UK, the revenue could help balance out any negative impacts due to state cuts.

“Right now, we’re a pretty financially stable institution,” Harper said. “There have been major costs associated with this, and I think the university has really done a good job to make sure that we’re covering and supporting what’s the most important, which are the people—the students and the faculty and the staff that are on campus.”

Blanton said they won’t determine how the extra revenue from the additional students will be used until after the final numbers are in.

“Suffice to say, there are millions of dollars in costs associated with our ongoing planning for restart and mitigation strategies to keep people healthy and safe,” he said. “We also don’t know what the economic picture will look like six months from now, in terms of both the state and national economies and how that might impact other revenue sources.”

And while enrollment has stayed steady, the demographics of the incoming class have shifted slightly.

Some education experts predicted that the pandemic would raise the percentage of in-state students as students chose to stay closer to home. But at UK, the opposite has happened — as of June, the percentage of out-of-state students has risen to 39 percent this year, up from 36 percent of the student population in 2019 – 2020, said Harper.

And while COVID-19 has forced domestic students to make difficult decisions, international students face a whole other set of challenges.

This year, international student applications have increased – but international enrollment is expected to fall, said Sue Roberts, associate provost for international programs.

Blanton said that as of August 10, there will be at least 1,100 international students on campus this fall, but that number is subject to change in the coming weeks.

International student enrollment reached a peak during the 2015-2016 school year, with 1,900 students, and has slowly dropped since then, staying in a range of 1,500 to 1,600 students the past three years, Roberts said.

There are several reasons for this year’s potential drop in enrollment, not all strictly COVID-related.

International students rely on U.S. embassies in their home countries to obtain their student visas. But U.S. embassies around the world were closed for weeks or months during the pandemic. Even those that have since reopened as their country got the virus under control are experiencing significant backlogs, said Roberts.

It’s a race against time, because without visas, international students won’t be able to attend UK in-person this semester.

Roberts said that most U.S. universities are experiencing decreases in international student numbers because of fiercer competition from schools in Canada and Europe. Also, the relative strength of the U.S. dollar makes higher education more expensive here.

International students also have to contend with increasing anti-Chinese rhetoric in the United States, the U.S.’s handling of the pandemic and turbulent immigration politics, said Roberts.

In the middle of the summer, the Trump administration gave ICE permission to deport international students whose university classes are all online. Though this decision was later reversed, it caused a lot of anxiety over fall reopening plans for international students at many universities.

In some cases at UK, international students unable to travel to the U.S. can take all their classes online this semester. However, Roberts said that similar to domestic students, international students attend UK for the social life of campus, with benefits like cultural immersion, campus-wide events and the college atmosphere.

Blanton said UK is working hard to ensure a good experience with adequate support for these students. As part of UK’s goal to create a welcoming community for first-time students, the university is starting a program called Global Wildcats in which international students can virtually take 15 credits-worth of UK Core classes and a UK 101 section designated for them.

“International students are a very important part of what makes UK a special place,” he said. “As is the case at research universities across the US and the world, we believe that convening the best minds to work on pressing issues – such as pandemic diseases, climate change, addiction, inequality – yields the best results. And, having a diversity of experiences, skills, ideas, and perspectives enriches not just classes but life at UK for everyone.”

COVID-19 will not only affect this year’s incoming students, but also current high school seniors, who are beginning college applications.

UK has been forced to adapt campus visits, high school visits and the admissions process in accordance with the virus. Blanton said they are continuing campus visits with additional guidelines and still determining plans for recruitment events.

“High schools likely are not going to let recruiters come in…there’s going to be limitations,” Harper said. “We can’t just have Zoom events all of the time. That’s what we are really trying to expand—novel forms of engagement.”

UK announced Thursday that ACT and SAT tests would be optional for next year’s prospective students.

“We didn’t want a lack of access to a test to prohibit a student from being a Wildcat,” Scott McDonald, dean of undergraduate admission, said in UK’s statement. “As we’ve continued to monitor the pandemic, it only felt right to extend this policy for the 2020-21 academic year as so many standardized exams have continued to be postponed or canceled.”