Earlier this summer, all signs pointed to a larger incoming class for LSU this fall.
The school saw a 4 percent uptick in applications over last year and a corresponding increase in the number of new freshmen accepted to LSU for the upcoming year. These indicators suggested LSU was on track to see a freshman class that was as much as 350 students larger than last year.
But with classes beginning in about a week, freshman orientation numbers aren't reflecting the same growth. The orientation event for new students is typically a good indicator for LSU of how many accepted students will actually attend in the fall.
Now, instead of an increase in freshmen, LSU expects its new class will be slightly smaller or about equal to last year's incoming class of about 5,400 students.
Freshman orientation was down 3 percent, or 162 students, from last year. But there's still a late orientation event right before school starts that could close the gap slightly.
So why the dip in interest?
For months, education and elected leaders have feared that several months of uncertainty and talk of doomsday scenarios for higher education funding in Louisiana could hurt the schools. This year, for the first time ever, students won't receive their full TOPS awards because the state could afford to fund only 70 percent of the scholarships.
And most recently, the state's flagship university has had to battle the perception that Baton Rouge is unsafe and racially torn, as headlines across the world have featured the high-profile shootings of Baton Rouge police officers, the emotionally charged death of Alton Sterling, a black man killed by white police officers, and several days of protests met by officers in riot gear.
At a community forum to discuss the shootings in Baton Rouge, the Rev. Joe Connelly, of Wesley United Methodist Church, said he'd heard rumors LSU was losing students. "Parents were afraid to send their children back to Baton Rouge because of what's been reported and what's been seen," he said.
LSU officials shared the fears. But ultimately, they said, the recent events aren't having a significant impact on enrollment.
"We expected the numbers to uptick a little," said Jason Droddy, LSU's executive director of policy and external affairs. "The size of the class seems to be the norm for LSU, so there are not alarm bells going off. We obviously would like to see that number inch up, but there are really no surprises in the data."
Droddy said LSU has fielded some calls from parents concerned about the recent shootings in Baton Rouge. But even though parents are asking questions about safety, he said early out-of-state student admissions numbers appear to be in line with last year, which suggests that the shootings ultimately were not a deciding factor for students and families.
The big concern this year was whether the unprecedented reduction in TOPS awards would change students' plans. About half of LSU's students receive TOPS, more than at any other Louisiana college or university. And LSU is also the most expensive public university to attend in the state, so its officials were especially worried they would lose students.
The larger concern was whether TOPS would put a dent in admissions by preventing lower-income students from being able to afford to attend and by pushing the highest-achieving students out of state.
Because of dramatic shortfalls in the state budget, the Legislature left the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students — a program that traditionally has covered the full cost of tuition at public universities for its recipients — partially funded for the first time.
Students will get only about 70 percent of their tuition covered this year. But the Legislature divided up the payments so the TOPS award covers 93 percent of tuition in the fall semester and less than half of it in the spring.
Droddy said LSU students do not appear to be deterred by the TOPS cut, based on the preliminary enrollment data, but he said it's possible the reason is that the Legislature didn't officially cut the program until late in the summer.
"We believe that the final decision on TOPS coming around July 1 made it too late for students to opt to go out of state," he said.
James Caillier, executive director for the Taylor Foundation, which started TOPS, agreed that students may have been locked into their school choice for the fall. But that could change in the spring, when the TOPS cut will be fully realized, or next fall, when students will have more time to think about options.
"If TOPS awards continue to go down, more students — our best students — will be leaving the state or going to less expensive schools," he said.
While LSU is expecting flat enrollment, officials have been working toward increasing the student population for years as they lean more on student tuition and fee dollars for operations. Last year, LSU had a total enrollment of about 31,000, but university President F. King Alexander has said he would like to see the school get closer to 35,000 or 36,000 students.
Classes for students at LSU begin on Aug. 22, and official enrollment isn't tallied until the 14th day of school.
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