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Nicholls State University in Thibodaux on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

When colleges around the country closed down earlier this year to slow the coronavirus contagion, higher education officials fretted that fall enrollment numbers would drop significantly. Many launched task forces to calculate just what that would mean to bottom lines.

“We had a lot uncertainty this year. We’ve been through a lot tumult, pandemic, campus closures, now storms,” said Jim Henderson, president of the University of Louisiana System, whose nine four-year institutions educate about 91,000 of the state's roughly 215,00 post-secondary students.

Six of 10 admissions officials across the country said they were “very concerned” about meeting their institution's enrollment goals for this fall, according to a survey of 433 senior admissions officials released Monday. The 2020 Inside Higher Ed Survey of College and University Admissions Officials, conducted by Gallup, also found that most colleges expect a decrease in enrollment this year.

Higher education officials in Louisiana needn’t have worried.

Public universities in this state, pretty much across the board, saw more students sign-up and pay tuition for the fall semester.

Some of the increases were dramatic: LSU-Baton Rouge and Northwestern State University have record-breaking years, signing up the largest classes in the schools’ histories. Nicholls State has its largest class since 1990.

The University of New Orleans and Southeastern Louisiana University also saw increases. So did the LSU campuses in Eunice, Alexandria, and Shreveport.

Really, the only school that will show a dip in the number of students is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Henderson said.

He attributed the decline to the Lafayette Parish school board being slow to activate dual enrollment, which allows high schoolers to take college courses. Otherwise, ULL had good recruitment year, he said.

The campus censuses are coming due to the Board of Regents, which oversees all public colleges and universities. Official numbers are required a few weeks after an institution opens for classes. Since not every school opens on the same day, they’re not all on the same timeline.

McNeese State University appeared on its way to more students but the campus suffered a lot of damage three weeks ago and had to suspend classes for a while, which set back the Regents’ timeline. Louisiana Tech University in Ruston didn’t start classes until earlier this month. Southern University System would not disclose its enrollment experience until its numbers were given to the Regents.

UL System President Henderson pointed to jobs as the primary reason why Louisiana’s postsecondary schools went against the national expectation. The economic shutdown and accompanying job losses motivated a good many students to improve their credentials and become more employable.

“Truth is I’ve been bullish throughout even though there were national predictions of a massive decline,” Henderson said, adding that at least part of his optimism came from an unmeasurable gut feeling that as students were displaced when their out-of-state college was shut down by the pandemic that students would want to transfer closer to home.

Optimistic he may have been, but back in April Henderson had the UL school leaders map out places in their budgets to cut should fall enrollments come in at 5%, 10%, even 15% shy of previous years.

About 70% of a public college’s revenues come from student tuitions and fees. The state’s contribution to the revenues for all public four-year and two-year colleges, as well as vocational technical schools was substantially reduced by the Louisiana Legislature during the spring. Fewer students signing up when the schools reopened would have exasperated an already touchy financial situation.

At UNO, for instance, if 5% fewer students attend the fall semester — that is, 412 fewer students — then the school would lose $2.9 million out of a $97.3 million budget last year. But that’s added to a 15% decrease from the reduction in the state support, unmet annual increases in costs like health insurance, and expenses related to COVID-19 that weren’t covered by federal grants.

When the dust settled, UNO added 144 more students to bring total enrollment up to 8,375 students – up 1.75% from last year. Twenty percent more freshmen students enrolled, going up from 935 to 1,123 students.

“Especially in light of the pandemic, a college education will be even more important,” UNO President John Nicklow said. “In recent months, we have learned a number of lessons about how to be more flexible and better support our students in completing their degrees; those lessons will help us serve our community and state far into the future.”

LSU enrolled the largest and most diverse freshman class in university history. This year’s 6,690 freshmen enrolled surpasses last year’s record of 6,126 freshmen. Overall enrollment at LSU is at an all-time high of 34,290.

“Setting new records for enrollment, retention and graduation rates would be an exceptional achievement during any academic year, but it’s an incredible accomplishment during this year of a pandemic,” LSU Interim President Tom Galligan Jr. said in a press release.

In the last 10 years, LSU has seen overall enrollment of Black students increase 87 percent to 5,028 and Hispanic student enrollment increase 130 percent to 2,490.

“As Louisiana’s flagship university, diversity is fundamental to our mission and we are honored to serve a growing number of traditionally underrepresented students. Our efforts to further diversify our student population will continue, while we also work on taking action to foster an even more inclusive and equitable campus environment in which every LSU student feels welcomed and valued on our campus,” Galligan said.

Northwestern State University, in Natchitoches, increased its student population by 547 students to 11,447 – the highest enrollment in the school’s 136-year history. NSU President Chris Maggio noted that all-time high student registration is set against a backdrop in which analysts, such as Simpson Scarborough and Fitch Ratings, projected declines of up to 20 percent of last fall’s enrollment figures.

“Southeastern's enrollment growth is not surprising,” said John L. Crain, president of Southeastern Louisiana University, in Hammond. “We see more students in these uncertain times looking for new opportunities as the job market remains challenging. New academic programs, more online learning opportunities and increased levels of student support are giving students more options to succeed.”


Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.