GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — With coronavirus-related restrictions eased, colleges across the nation are eager to welcome students back to campus in the fall and are hopeful they can make up for lost enrollment from the previous year.
On July 15, Stockton University for the first time in its 50-year history invited new students to attend an overnight orientation as a way to help students who spent the past year and a half socially distanced get acclimated to the campus experience.
“I think it’s critically important for students to get back into some sense of normalcy,” Stockton President Harvey Kesselman said.
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic had a sharp impact on college enrollment, with post-secondary enrollment down 4.2% from the year prior, according to a March 25 report from the National Student Clearinghouse. Colleges are hoping more in-person offerings and events will help drive increases in enrollment.
"Frankly, it’s still too early to talk about enrollment projections for September," Rowan University spokesperson Joe Cardona said. "We are, however, doing very well, and we are excited about welcoming students back in person, again."
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Cardona said about 87% of Rowan's undergraduate courses will be offered in person in the fall. Rowan's enrollment for first-time students dropped from 2,695 in 2019 to 2,239 in 2020, according to the New Jersey Office of the Secretary of Higher Education.
Atlantic Cape Community College was just starting to see enrollment increases after years of decline in 2019, with total enrollment up 2% over 2018.
"We were obviously negatively impacted by COVID. Nationally, community colleges went down by 11.8%. We were better than that, but we were down," said Atlantic Cape Vice President of Academic Affairs Josette Katz. "Right now, we're really concentrating on helping our students get back to a routine and focus their attention."
With offerings of tuition-free college to eligible students through the state's Community College Opportunity Grant, and loan forgiveness made possible through federal COVID-19 relief funds, as well as incentives such as a free laptop for students who register for six credits and three free credits for any registered student, Katz said Atlantic Cape is hopeful to have positive enrollment growth not only over 2020, but over 2019 as well.
At Stockton, the number of first-time students dropped by 8% from fall 2019 to fall 2020. The number of transfer students also dropped by 19% over that same time. Kesselman called it “a blip.”
“I think what will happen, I think we'll be up on new students this year,” he said.
Bob Heinrich, chief enrollment management officer at Stockton, said things seem to be turning around for this year, with freshman enrollment about 4% behind fall 2020 as of mid-July.
“It is unfortunately too early to tell because obviously we have a month and a half to go before we get to the true start of the semester,” he said. “However, we are, right now, up in transfer students.”
Heinrich attributes it to the number of students who were first-year students last year at community colleges.
“Now, they’re looking for that in-person residential experience this fall,” he said. “We anticipate that trend to continue as we complete orientation and student registration over the remainder of the summer.”
Heinrich added that Stockton is seeing application activity in July, a time it wouldn’t normally see applications coming in. In addition, more than 2,000 students have attended one of Stockton’s overnight orientations over the past month.
Incoming freshman Richie Robinson, 18, of Secaucus, Hudson County, was attending one of those overnight stays July 15. Robinson said he spent his senior year of high school virtual, so going to live classes and events will be a welcome change.
“My bedroom was my classroom,” he said. “I’m a little nervous, but that’s what all freshmen are.”
Jennifer Welch, of Somerset, whose daughter was also attending the overnight stay, said she was “super thankful” that the pandemic restrictions were eased and her daughter was able to experience college in person.
“We had told our children months ago that if the restrictions were still in place, you’re going to be enjoying community college next year,” Welch said.
Welch and fellow mom Tiffany Coleman, of Delran, Burlington County, were wandering with Tiffany’s daughter through the bookstore and looking at Stockton merchandise while Welch’s daughter had connected with her roommate and was off exploring the campus.
“I thought that she was going to be stuck at home for a whole ’nother year,” Coleman said of her daughter. “Luckily the governor opened up the state and allowed universities and colleges to open back up to allow families and students to have a collegiate career again on a physical campus.”
Coleman said that for her family, Stockton felt like home.
“It’s a little overwhelming but exciting at the same time,” she said.
“These students are so thirsty to be around each other," Welch added. “They’re ready.”
Heinrich said college staff and faculty are also ready to see a return to in-person learning.
“We believe that experience, which is the residential experience that most of our students desire and that they deserve, that that is going to return us back to where we were in the 2019-20 academic year prior to COVID,” he said.