Clemson University on track to increase enrollment this fall despite coronavirus
Although the coronavirus pandemic has created expectations of lower enrollment at colleges nationwide, Clemson University says it's on track to grow its student body by hundreds this fall.
Clemson was on target, as of late last month, to hit its annual 2% growth benchmark for the 2020-21 school year. That amounts to about 400 new undergraduate students for a total enrollment of 26,371, according to university spokesperson Joe Galbraith.
Officials at the University of South Carolina are bracing for a potential decrease from 2019's 33,256 full-time students, though enrollment was projected to grow by 1.3%, or about 300 students, in a May 28 report from the university. Enrollment could decline if students decide to drop out or transfer due to the virus, as some analysts of higher education expect, said university spokesperson Jeff Stensland.
USC is anticipating a higher-than-average "melt," or students who pay deposits but ultimately don't attend, according to Stensland.
"The financial impact of COVID-19 on families likely will mean a greater percentage of both incoming freshman and current students may not be able to attend," Stensland said in a text message to The Greenville News. He did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
Nationwide, in efforts to try to entice students to enroll, colleges have accepted more students than in previous years and extended deadlines for accepted students to makes deposits and secure enrollment. The extended deadlines mean colleges may not know until August what fall enrollment will be, according to an April report from USA Today.
Enrollment is a key factor in a university's financial health. At Clemson, tuition is the No. 1 stream of revenue, making up about 45% of the school's $1.3 billion operating budget for the 2020 fiscal year.
Students fees like parking and meal plans also account for revenue. If classes were held online and fees were not collected, Clemson could lose up to $100 million in revenue in one semester, according to Vice President of Finance and Facilities Tony Wagner.
Clemson graduate student enrollment declines despite rise for undergrads
For Clemson's graduate school, enrollment is on the decline.
Graduate school enrollment is down about 4% for new students and could dip further before the start of classes, according to a May 21 interview with graduate school dean Jason Fleming. U.S. visa restrictions could bar hundreds of international students from travelling to Clemson this fall to begin their degree programs, Fleming said.
USC is tracking more graduate program growth than undergraduate, according to its recent report, which tracks enrollment date and is released monthly. Doctoral program enrollment has increased more than 8% from last year's preliminary headcount, and the pharmacy program enrollment has increased by 2.3%, the report states.
Each of South Carolina's two largest universities have increased their student bodies for a decade, according to enrollment data. And strategic plans at both schools indicate anticipation for at least three more years of growth.
Clemson's commitment to growing was documented in 2016 with the ClemsonForward plan that set the annual 2% growth benchmark. One of the plan's goals is to enroll 30,000 students by 2026.
To hit that goal, Clemson would need to add roughly 4,000 more students in the next six years.
In a 2019 interview, then-director of admissions David Kukowski said the majority of the growth would occur in the graduate school.
USC also wants to grow its graduate programs. It has a targeted goal of increasing graduate and doctoral program enrollment 3% by 2023, according to the school's Focus Carolina strategic plan.
For undergraduate students, the university planned to have a freshman class of 6,000 by 2021, and USC passed that threshold last year, according to a 2019 press release.
It's too soon to know if the pandemic will affect the universities' growth plans, officials said.
Greenville Tech and two-year schools could grow during COVID-19 pandemic
Clemson's growth is at odds with national trends indicating a decline in college enrollment during the coronavirus pandemic. One survey from education consulting firm Simpson Scarborough found college enrollment could decline up to 20% this fall at four-year colleges due to the virus, especially if classes remain all-online.
But the nearby University of Georgia is not expected to take an enrollment hit due to the coronavirus, either, director of communications Gregory Trevor, who did not respond to a phone call to his listed office number, said in an email. Trevor said the incoming freshman class at UGA is estimated to be almost 1,000 students greater than 2019's class of 4,500 students.
"We are still collecting orientation data, but so far it appears to be consistent with past years," Trevor said.
The estimated 2020 freshman class is equal to 2017 and 2018 class sizes, according to UGA enrollment data. The 2019 freshman class saw a significant dip in numbers, but overall enrollment increased, according to the data.
At Clemson, to buck coronavirus-related decreased-enrollment trends, the university accepted more people than usual this year, Wagner told the board of trustees in April. The move was made to increase yield rates — the number of accepted students who follow through with enrollment — in the midst of the pandemic, he said.
A national survey from marketing and strategy firm the Art and Science Group found that 17% of students who originally planned on attending a four-year university in the fall have changed their plans due to the coronavirus.
Some of those students may opt to stay closer to home and attend local community colleges, according to Greenville Technical College communications director Becky Mann.
Mann said it's too early to tell how many people will enroll in the fall at Greenville Tech, but she said Greenville Tech expects enrollment to ultimately be as high or higher than its enrollment of about 11,000 students in 2019-20.
"That is what two-year colleges nationwide expect," Mann said.
Zoe covers Clemson for The Greenville News and Independent Mail. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @zoenicholson_