In the fall semester of 2020, undergraduate enrollment for bachelor’s degrees at universities across the state fell 2.1 percent compared to the previous year, the statistics having fallen 7.3 percent from five years before, according to the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. The numbers look similar at Eastern Kentucky University, with the number of students enrolled in four-year degrees dropping 3.6 percent from the fall semester of 2020 to the spring semester of 2021.
Gill Hunter, assistant vice president of graduation and retention, attributes a portion of the drop in retention rates to being a normal response to the previous year’s record high enrollment rate.
“It’s not surprising we had a drop off, not just because of the pandemic, but because you don’t know if you’ll continue to set record highs. Though the pandemic didn’t do us any favors,” said Hunter.
Universities across the state have reported drops in retention rates since the beginning of the pandemic, with students facing unique struggles during this time. Many students have an increased level of financial need after they or their family members were laid off during the quarantine.
For those who may be facing issues with having enough money to continue their enrollment at EKU, the university offers a retention scholarship. This scholarship is designed to help make up the leftover balance for that semester for a student who has already been through the financial aid process. Last year, students would be awarded an average of $492.
EKU also offers the SAFE fund for students who are experiencing an unexpected extra cost that they are unable to cover. This can include medical needs, travel during a family crisis or safety needs. This specific fund is designed to cover non-academic needs that students may be facing. Awards given from this fund typically don’t exceed $300.
“A student may need $300 to get their car repaired. That’s not really academic, but it makes a huge difference in whether or not they can be successful in class,” said Hunter.
While there is a financial factor to the lower retention rate seen this semester, Hunter also believes that academic and mental health struggles that students are facing have also played a role in the drop.
“I think many students had trouble shifting to the online classes … and then students who weren’t online, I think many of them struggled with time management,” said Hunter.
Students who may be facing more emotional pain during the pandemic can utilize EKU’s Counseling Center. Students facing academic struggles can visit the Noel Studio for tutoring. Both the Counseling Center and the Noel Studio offer online sessions for students by appointment during the pandemic.
Recruitment efforts for incoming first-year students enrolling have also taken a hit during the pandemic. Many colleges have also seen a drop in enrollment rates due to a decrease in recruitment events.
The closing of schools impacted the ability to recruit high school seniors during the school year. Even with schools opening back up in-person, many schools still heavily restrict visitors entering due to the continued spread of the virus.
“I definitely think that, in my opinion, the pandemic has changed our recruitment strategy,” said Jill Page, Senior Director of Admissions.
EKU Admissions has hosted several virtual recruitment events and some in-person with social distancing guidelines. Limited capacity tours and virtual spotlight days have continued through the pandemic and have expanded the geographic area available for recruitment efforts.
The delay in getting college information out to students as well as the challenges current high school students are facing with virtual learning may be a factor in the low number of enrollment in universities across the country.
“I think that they’re very concerned about their current classes this senior year … and any personal challenges they may be facing, and that is making their engagement with the college search more delayed,” said Page.
More information and resources can be found here:
Retention Scholarship application: https://retentiongraduation.eku.edu/retention-scholarship
SAFE Fund information: https://retentiongraduation.eku.edu/student-assistance-fund-eastern