Photo via Shutterstock
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More freshmen than expected are securing spots at key Michigan colleges, and the pandemic plays a big part in the reason.

MICHIGAN — Some Michigan colleges aren’t seeing the enrollment dropoff they expected following the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to new preliminary first-year enrollment figures.

As The ‘Gander previously reported, colleges and universities across Michigan have looked to fall with caution and apprehension, expecting heavy losses in enrollment due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

Deposits are the first money a college receives from incoming freshmen, saving their place in the new class starting in the fall. Bridge looked at deposit data across Michigan and found that these early indicators show enrollment either holding steady or facing only minor drops compared to last year. 

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The University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus and Michigan State University actually have hit higher enrollment than their annual targets. We break down why institutions like these are faring better than others. 

An Early Look at Fall Enrollment

U-M had 7,298 deposits from incoming freshmen, beating the school’s target of 7,182. Similarly, Michigan State has 9,165 deposits, which is “up from 2019 by a few hundred,” MSU spokesperson Emily Guerrant told Bridge.

Bridge reports that other colleges have also avoided a drop in fall enrollment. But Brendan Cantwell, associate professor and coordinator of the Higher, Adult and Lifelong Education program at MSU, cautioned that smaller institutions in Michigan may not see the same outcome.

“There is a declining number of high school seniors in the state of Michigan over time,” Cantwell told Bridge. “That means institutions that rely mostly on in-state students have a smaller number of students to draw from, and places that have been growing over time, like Michigan State … are in better shape to compete for the students who are left in Michigan.”

While larger universities are doing better, the hits to smaller universities have been less smaller than feared. Eastern Michigan University saw a decline of 8% based on early figures. And Eastern hopes extended enrollment deadlines will help address that shortfall. Meanwhile, Kalamazoo College’s enrollment drop was less than 1%.

“I’m not surprised … people are probably a little unsure about traveling … and leaving their state, so big state universities are likely in a good position to attract more students this cycle,” said Cantwell.

While that’s part of the benefit colleges in south Michigan are seeing, it was a challenge for far-flung Michigan Technological University. 

“Maybe they’re afraid they’re going to get stuck,” Kyle Rubin, director of admissions recruitment for Michigan Tech, told The ‘Gander. “What if there’s an outbreak and they can’t leave, or what if Mom and Dad get sick and they have to go home? Those kinds of things are going through students’ minds.”

Michigan Tech is a prestigious institution in Houghton in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Despite a national reputation, Rubin was concerned about the distance students would need to travel to attend the college. 

The early numbers from Michigan Tech show enrollment tracking roughly to what the college saw last fall, Rubin said Monday, but he stressed that the numbers were early. Returning undergrad enrollment is tracking 2% higher than the college anticipated before the pandemic.

Rubin noted that his office focused heavily on helping prospective students navigate this unusual time and determine the best course of action for them. 

“Our colleges, both public and private, have really worked hard to put together sound plans,” Colby Cesaro, vice president at Michigan Independent College and Universities, an association of private institutions, told Bridge. “The consistent communication from college presidents … has really helped families feel comfortable that if they are going to meet in-person, they’re not going to do it in an unsafe way.”

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But the lack of anticipated enrollment dropoff has posed challenges to doing things safely in the fall. 

Students will want the education and services commensurate with a college experience while remaining safe, said Cantwell. This will strain colleges, who must provide the same level of service and instruction while maintaining social distancing to keep students safe. 

The efforts of colleges to maintain instruction in spring as the pandemic began have been heavily criticised and resulted in over 100 lawsuits nationwide, Marketwatch reports. That’s the risk colleges face if their fall accommodations don’t successfully balance providing an education with protecting the health of students. 

“Universities are going to have to try and manage this health crisis and manage distancing while providing services, probably doing it with less money per student than they had in recent years,” Cantwell said.