University sees enrollment positives but pandemic-driven challenges continue
Recently, the University shared the results from its fall 2021 census with faculty and staff members. Census Day, Sept. 10, provides total student enrollment (both undergraduate and graduate) for the 2021-22 academic year and will help curate the next University budget.
Currently, the total student population stands at 10,039, which is 10 students over the budgeted target for fiscal year 2022. The number dropped slightly by 0.3% from last year’s enrollment numbers. However, the actual 5,941 undergraduate students outperformed the University’s budgeted target by nearly 1.7%.
In an email to the Foghorn, April Crabtree, interim vice provost for strategic enrollment management, said the University “should be proud” of USF’s current enrollment numbers since there were “incredible challenges in reaching out to students to tell the USF story given the lack of in-person recruitment that was available.”
Among the most noteworthy details in this year’s findings is the 27.4% increase of first-year students from last fall’s remote semester. Last academic year’s number of enrolled first-year students was the University’s lowest mark since 2013. Today, there are 1,455 first-year students: a 1.7% increase from USF’s budgeted projection.
Crabtree said their office was not surprised by the findings nor were there any missed targets or underestimates. “Our results were very close to the goals set,” she said. The return to mostly in-person classes can be attributed to the increase and provided the University with a better outlook. “The 2020-2021 virtual learning cycle gave a lot of students time to think about how they learn best. For many students who are strong fits for a USF education, acting in and with community, building relationships, and in-person learning are how they engage best,” Crabtree said.
There were some significant demographic changes among new first-year students. Compared to last fall, first-year Asian identifying students fell by 2.4% and there was a 0.9% drop in first-year Black students. However, there was a 3.8% increase in first-year Hispanic or Latino students.
Meanwhile, the overall transfer student targets of 330 for this fall fell shy of two students. Crabtree explained that this missed projection is a reflection of the national decline in students attending community colleges. As a result, Crabtree and her team “hope that our [USF’s] new transfer success and belonging initiative will address some of these challenges.”
Despite some positive growth and USF’s increasing focus on virtual recruitment, which Crabtree said provided the University “the opportunity to invite everyone to connect in a host of new ways,” lingering effects from the pandemic continued this academic year.
Notably, the University saw a sharp decline among international students, particularly those from China, who typically make up the bulk of this demographic. The enrollment of first-year international students from China dropped 23.8% this fall.
Crabtree said they had anticipated this number. “I think we knew starting last fall that enrolling international students and transfer students given the pandemic would be very challenging due to factors far outside USF’s control,” she said. “Travel restrictions, difficulties in getting appointments for visas, and other concerns about how the U.S. has handled the coronavirus pandemic were completely expected.”
While the sophomore return rate grew by 10%, junior retention and graduation rates decreased. The University projected a 74% return rate for the junior class this year, however, only 70% of this cohort has returned since fall 2019. In addition, USF’s institutional four-year graduation rate fell by 4.4%.
Jeff Hamrick, vice provost of institutional budget, planning, and analytics, said the jump in the rising sophomore return rate surprised him since the budget target they set for second-year retention was already high but “still wasn’t quite aggressive enough.” Conversely, the lower junior return and graduation rate “suggests there is some kind of differential behavior, as they’ve [students] traveled through the pandemic,” said Hamrick.
For international student junior Nathan Te, his decision to stay home in the Philippines and skip his first semester of junior year last fall was the right choice. “I’ve been happy about my decision to defer because I feel like I would’ve wasted a semester not getting the same learning experience as I would with in-person classes.” Although Te admitted he gets a bit sad knowing most of his friends are graduating sooner, he said getting the most out of his college experience was more important.
Although USF enrollment numbers have been fluctuating, the University again saw its discount rate, the calculated financial aid that the University provides to all students, return to its normal long-term rising trend. Overall, the USF discount rate rose to 33.8% compared to last year’s 32.9%. The discount rate for first-year students has also increased by 1.1% since last fall.
The mixed enrollment results have given USF some optimism to share and strategic admission initiatives to work on. According to Hamrick’s email to faculty and staff on Sept. 15, “the Office of Planning and Budget is fairly confident that forecasted total net revenue will be slightly higher than budget, driven by a better-than-expected gross revenue outcome, a better-than-expected mix of discounting outcomes across various student groups, and worse-than-expected revenues from some auxiliary resources.”
Further, Hamrick said that the gap between what will be planned revenues and expenses for fiscal year 2023 will be smaller than previously expected. “These census outcomes have caused us to revise that gap downwards a bit. We don’t think it will be as high as it was four months ago.”
In the meantime, Crabtree said most student demographics remained strong for the University’s diversity given that it was recently named as the top diverse higher education institution in the country. Still, their team will work on specific areas that need attention, including the continued decreased admissions of male-identifying undergraduate students.
“Continuing to engage in honest, thoughtful conversations on our future as one USF will be critical. Listening openly with empathy and grace will be critical. Doing this together will move us forward,” said Crabtree.