‘U’ aims for 7,200 in freshman class as schools nationwide worry coronavirus could impact enrollment

Sunday, May 17, 2020 - 6:15pm

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Design by Hibah Chughtai

Approximately 7,200 freshmen are expected to begin taking classes at the University of Michigan in the fall, a 20 percent increase from the target class size six years ago.

The University was 500 students over target when 6,532 enrolled in the fall 2014 freshman class. In response, University leadership introduced a plan to ensure an end to the trend of over-enrolling seen in previous years.

Now, the University is prepared to have 7,182 freshmen — its target class size — enrolled starting in the fall 2020 semester, according to an email from University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald. Having a larger class size required more students to be admitted than in previous years, Fitzgerald said.

Fitzgerald said this larger target allows the University to lessen the effect COVID-19 could have on the class size. While he said that the matriculation rate has increased, the University is watching for “summer melt,” a term that refers to when students pay a deposit in spring but ultimately decide not to attend the school before fall.

A class size of 6,000 students would fall below the high-6,000 number the University brought in over the past three years. For comparison, the University’s goal size for the fall 2020 class would include one additional student to every five in the fall 2014 target size.

The concerns with having 6,500 students in the class were partially rooted in West Quad, one of the largest dorms, being under renovation. But the University also had to expand its academic offerings to accommodate the additional students: LSA added 86 class sections and the College of Engineering hired more instructors to teach additional discussion sections for first-year courses.

There is the question, then, as to if these same issues arise with a class of 7,182 — 700 larger than the 6,500-person class that spurred these additions. Fitzgerald said they will not.

The University is simply more strategic when determining a class size than it was six years ago, Fitzgerald said, and the class was “purposefully increased” after consulting with the Office of Enrollment Management, Office of the Provost and the University’s colleges and schools. He also pointed to the fact that University-wide enrollment has grown over the last several years. University administrators and enrollment managers are hopeful the larger class size will also ease any potential impacts COVID-19 could have on the class size.

“Our academic units and campus resources had a bit more flexibility to accommodate a larger class, and a larger target enables us to mitigate the COVID-related instability in the class,” Fitzgerald wrote. 

As the University works toward enrolling the largest freshman classes in recent history, schools across the nation worry if current students will come back or if incoming freshmen will still choose to enroll. The University of Kentucky, for example, has estimated its incoming freshman class will shrink from 5,500 students — the previously anticipated size — to 4,500 because of economic and health concerns related to COVID-19.

According to a College Reaction poll, 65 percent of students surveyed would attend college classes in-person without a vaccine for COVID-19, though 81 percent said their school must reduce tuition by at least 5 percent. Cirkledin found 69 percent of the approximately 1,100 high school seniors surveyed felt COVID-19 would impact their higher education financial situation.

Jayne Fonash, president of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, said students have questions, and while universities are trying to be transparent, enrollment numbers may change depending on each school’s decision on how to deliver instruction for fall semester.

Fonash said many students are having to make decisions about their future with less information than they would like to have. Parents she spoke with are questioning if paying tuition, especially at the out-of-state cost level, is more worth it for remote coursework than a local college would be. 

“We’re asking 18-year-olds to make decisions on very incomplete information, and on one hand, the virus has turned their world upside down and it makes a decision more challenging,” Fonash said. “But on the other hand, as I've been working with students, I've really been trying to encourage them to continue to be optimistic about their future and be hopeful that that future is still there. It’s just that the decision-making to get there and the path to get there may look different than it would have four or five months ago.”

Fonash said it is inevitable students may change their minds about attending a school they have paid a deposit at if they are uncomfortable with the school’s plan for fall. She said it goes both ways, too: while some may not want to spend the next semester on a virtual platform, others may be fearful about living on campus and being exposed to so many people.

While the University has, at this point, bucked the trend nationwide with being on track to meet its target class size, Fonash warned that it will be hard to know how schools will be affected in terms of enrollment until decisions about fall are made.

Fonash said some universities have also begun tapping into their waitlist before May 1, the deadline for placing deposits to enroll in the freshman class for many schools nationwide, though a notable number did postpone this deadline to June 1 this year. In previous years, Fonash said going to the waitlist this early would have been uncommon.

Fitzgerald noted the University did offer acceptances to students on its waitlist in April, specifically in response to a decline in international student matriculation. The international student enrollment counters positive increases seen in both in-state and out-of-state enrollment.

LSA senior Jiaheng He, former president of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, said economic, political and social issues COVID-19 created has prompted Chinese students to either choose other colleges in the U.S. or to study in other countries.

He said the University’s tuition and fees are higher than other schools and prospective students may have chosen the University in the past for its academic reputation and research opportunities. However, because of growing concern over the ability to pay for school in the future given the current economic uncertainty, students may have chosen their other, less expensive options this year.

According to He, there are also issues with the U.S. Embassy in China having an appointment waiting list through September that may sway Chinese students to study in countries where the process is more streamlined. He also said it does not help that Michigan has been in the spotlight for rallies at the state capitol that included demonstrators carrying assault-style weapons and the discrimination Chinese people have felt in the U.S. as a result of COVID-19, such as it being incorrectly labeled the “Wuhan virus.”

Besides the high tuition international students pay, He said a decline in international student matriculation will mean fewer diverse viewpoints in the class and at the University.

“When people come here, they add something new,” He said. “If we don’t have enough people coming here, we will probably lose some of those really interesting stories and really interesting backgrounds.”

Currently, with few schools having announced concrete plans for fall semester, Fonash said it is a waiting game for incoming college freshmen as decisions about fall semesters at the school they are attending could impact their plans for the next year.

The University is on track to meet its goal of 7,182 new first-year students for the fall semester with no more requests for deferrals or gap years than in previous admission cycles, Fitzgerald said. But as Fonash and Fitzgerald both noted, there could be some change over summer as more information about the fall semester becomes available.

As the fate of fall semester at the University and at other schools nationwide are decided, Fonash encouraged students to think about if they can overcome the semester, even if it takes place in a way they are not pleased with, to end up on the path they hoped to be on.

“If you really want to go to the University of Michigan — if you've been admitted and this is a school that you've decided fits your needs better than anyplace else — give some serious thought to how willing you are to stay on that path, even if the opening plan is not one that you're thrilled with,” Fonash said. “Of course, you'd like to be on campus in September. You’d like to be living this experience as well as being in classrooms every day. But if the worst-case scenario is you have to take classes remotely for one out of eight semesters, you can probably get through that and be where you wanted to be all along as we come out of this crisis.”

Daily News Editor Alex Harring can be reached at harring@umich.edu