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Most Louisiana colleges see enrollment growth, but not University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Leigh Guidry, The Daily Advertiser, Sept. 25, 2020

Most public universities across Louisiana are seeing gains in enrollment this fall despite the COVID-19 pandemic, but not the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

The enrollment increases at most state universities led to a 1.3% increase for Louisiana, according to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data.

"Early on, there were a lot of national predictions of declines in enrollment. But what you're seeing is a result of the willingness of faculty to adapt to a number of new realities, leadership putting in a lot of planning to make it possible, and just a yearning on the part of students to continue their education," UL System President Jim Henderson said.

The state's flagship, Louisiana State University, has a record-breaking 34,290 students enrolled this fall, a 6% increase from fall 2019 and a 17% increase from 10 years ago.

Five of the nine schools in the University of Louisiana System saw growth in their student populations this year.

But that wasn't the case at UL, which saw an enrollment drop for the fifth consecutive year. UL is down nearly 500 students compared to last year, despite growth in graduate programs.

More:10 fraternity, sorority members test positive for COVID-19 at UL Lafayette

The University of Louisiana at Monroe also saw this fall's enrollment drop by about 20 students.

Two Louisiana System schools have not reported enrollment yet.

This year's drop in enrollment at UL continues a downward trend. The university has lost a few hundred students a year since fall 2015, amounting to a 7.7% loss over six years.

The number of undergrad and graduate students at UL this fall totals 16,450, down from about 17,000 in 2019 and 17,288 in 2018, based on figures from the University of Louisiana System and the state Board of Regents.

This year's enrollment falls in the range of the 2009 and 2010 figures, when the Great Recession's effects were more fully being felt throughout Louisiana.

DeWayne Bowie, UL's vice president for Enrollment Management, attributed the decline to lower high school graduate numbers and tougher admission standards that have led to increased retention.

More:University of Louisiana at Lafayette among nation's best colleges in Princeton Review

"Not everybody is ready to come to UL at first," Bowie said, referring to academic criteria said to mark college-readiness like high grades, ACT scores or class rankings.

He noted the record-breaking number of valedictorians in this fall's freshman class as an indicator of anticipated success at UL.

"That speaks to the quality and that they're ready to perform on day one," Bowie said. "We are making sure our focus is on those who can be successful."

Bowie said the Ragin' Cajun Bridge program allows students to start at a local community college, get access to UL campus and services, and later transfer to the four-year school. 

"They get familiar with the university so that when they transfer they hit the ground running," Bowie said.

He added that "COVID was a factor for us."

Henderson said the pandemic's impact would be felt more greatly at UL than some of its peers, because it attracts more students from across Louisiana and out-of-state for research. Others in the system see more students from their geographic region, he said.

"Intuition tells me a lot of those (first-time freshmen lost) decided to stay closer to home," Henderson said.

Attracting more students to the UL System will require "being very aggressive and purposeful in our recruiting activities," Henderson said.

"We have to make sure students know the opportunities that await them at these institutions," he said. "We want students to go to the college that best fits their needs and helps them to develop and grow as an individual, but they have to be able to make informed decisions."

More:Hurricane Laura evacuees from McNeese State make University of Louisiana at Lafayette home

How does enrollment compare over the last decade?

Some schools in the UL System, like Grambling State University and Nicholls State University, have fluctuated over the last 10 years and come out about the same this fall compared to 2011.

Others, like Northwestern State University and Southeastern Louisiana University, have seen major dips and upticks since 2011.

UL Lafayette seems to still be on a negative trajectory with consecutive enrollment losses, but the University of New Orleans has struggled the most in the UL System, with enrollment down 23% in 2020 from 2011.

Here's a breakdown of enrollment at UL System member institutions over the last decade.

UL saw its enrollment increase most years from 2011 to 2016. Then it began an opposite trajectory to this fall's 16,450, which is 2.6% lower than the regional university's enrollment 10 years ago.

Grambling State's enrollment hovered around 5,200 in 2011 and 2012. It saw a major drop of more than 500 students from 2013 to 2014 and then saw incremental increases each year to return to that 5,200 range for several years.

Grambling gained about 200 students this fall to reach an enrollment of 5,438, according to preliminary data from the UL System.

More:Back to school: How will I know if my child's school has a positive COVID-19 case?

The last decade looked similarly for Nicholls State in Thibodaux. It saw a steady decline in students from 6,805 in 2011 for several years, reaching a low of 6,215 in 2015. Then the numbers turned the other way, with a steady rise to 6,780 in 2020. That's just a difference of 25 students from 10 years ago.

Fall enrollment figures for Northwestern State in Natchitoches fluctuate over the years, ranging from 9,288 in 2011 to a low of 9,073 in 2013 and up again to an all-time high of 11,447 this fall. That was an increase of 547 students, or 5%, over last year’s total of 10,900.

Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond had almost 1,000 more students in 2011 than it does this semester, seeing two major drops in enrollment (loss of about 500 students each time) in 2013 and 2014.

Then the school saw incremental losses from 2015 to 2019, followed by an increase of about 200 students this year. There are 14,461 students at Southeastern this fall, compared to 15,423 a decade ago.

The University of Louisiana at Monroe has seen its student population drop three consecutive years now, falling from 9,324 in 2017 to 8,676 this year. That is a loss of 7%, but only 1% down from 8,766 in 2011.

The University of New Orleans has seen the biggest loss in enrollment over the last 10 years for the UL System, going from 10,903 in 2011 to 8,375 in 2020. That's a 23% drop.

UNO saw some major losses, the most notable being a 3,214 student drop from 2011 to 2012. The school reached a low of 7,976 in 2017 and has incrementally added about 400 students since then.

Louisiana Tech University's 2020 figures are not available yet. Enrollment counts are taken on the 14th day of class. Using the quarter system, Tech starts later in the fall than its peers each year. 

Its enrollment has fluctuated from 11,563 a decade ago to a high of 12,839 in 2017 and back down to 11,833 in 2019.

McNeese State University has not submittted its count yet due to Hurricane Laura. The school saw five consecutive years of decline from 8,793 in 2011 to 7,635 in 2016, a 13% loss. It stayed almost even for two years and then fell to 7,307 in 2019.

The state's flagship, Louisiana State University, is in a separate system that also includes LSU of Alexandria, LSU Shreveport and LSU Eunice.

The Baton Rouge school has seen continued growth in enrollment, setting a record for itself this fall with 34,290. That's up from 32,348 in fall 2019 and 31,543 in fall 2018, according to figures announced by the university and Board of Regents records.

Over the last 10 years LSU's enrollment grew 17% from 29,322 students in 2011. Enrollment data from the Board of Regents show increases every year at LSU through the decade.

A closer look at UL Lafayette

UL Lafayette's undergrad enrollment is down, with 14,020 students in fall 2020 compared to 14,690 in fall 2019. The number of first-time freshmen at UL Lafayette also decreased, now at 2,338 from 2,536 last year.

The UL Lafayette Graduate School has 2,430 students enrolled this semester, up by 100 over last fall.

The university celebrated grad school growth over the last five years, as this year's figure is 46% higher than the 1,521 enrolled in fall 2016. The school has added graduate programs, including an online MBA, during that time.

But the growth in graduate programs does not make up for the loss undergrad students, coming out to an overall loss for the school.

An additional 2,728 non-degree-seeking students brings the school's overall fall 2020 enrollment to 19,178, which reflects a 1.1% decrease over last fall’s overall enrollment of 19,403. 

That total does not include dual enrollment students, high school juniors and seniors who take courses and earn college credits while still in high school.

"The university expects an uptick among these students this semester and anticipates a stable Fall 2020 enrollment that’s comparable to last year's," according to a release.



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