COVID-19 means freshman class might be three-fourths the size of projections

With enrollment numbers coming in under admissions’ projections, Augustana is prepared for a smaller freshman class and student body population than originally anticipated.

The admissions office had projected an incoming class of over 400 for the fall of 2020, according to Madeleine Ellis, director of undergraduate enrollment. Now that the coronavirus has affected incoming students across the country, Augustana can expect a freshman class of approximately 300. 

In the past, May 1 has been considered “decision day,” and the incoming freshman class has historically been around 400 committed students, according to Ellis. While the exact number of incoming freshmen won’t be official until later this summer, it’s expected to be less than 400.

“Many external and internal factors influence enrollment every year, but we’re especially influenced by COVID-19 and the associated economic pressures on students and families this year,” Ellis said. “We admit students on a rolling admission basis, and given the disruption of many students’ decision timelines in light of the pandemic, we won’t have our incoming class solidified until later.”

Although this year’s freshman class will be smaller than the first-year classes from the past five years, Augustana’s total enrollment will still be comparable to previous years because of the large size of the sophomore, junior and senior classes, as well as the growing number of graduate students, according to Ellis.

The admissions office has experienced a decline in enrollment both domestically and internationally. Ellis said the majority of Augustana students come from the Midwest, and there’s been a decrease in some key recruitment areas, such as rural South Dakota, rural Minnesota and Nebraska.

According to admissions counselor Wendy Mamer, domestic students are reconsidering their college decisions as they think about staying closer to home, “especially given that cities and institutions with a higher population density face greater uncertainty.” 

“Some students are opting to stay closer to home in light of COVID-19, so we will likely continue to receive applications from students from Sioux Falls and the immediate surrounding areas throughout the summer,” Ellis said.

International recruitment suffers

International student recruitment has also been significantly affected by the coronavirus as embassies have closed and international travel has become more uncertain and unpredictable. In response, the admissions office has established new flexible enrollment policies for prospective international students.

“[We’re] hopeful that depending on the trajectory of the virus, incoming international students will be able to join us this fall or defer enrollment to spring or next fall,” Ellis said.

Some prospective students have considered taking a gap year due to the uncertainties of the fall semester, according to Ellis. Now that Augustana has committed to an on-campus semester next semester, she’s hopeful that students will feel more confident enrolling.

Costs and virtual visits

Admissions has heard some common feedback that not being able to go on college visits has made prospective students’ decisions more difficult.

“Some students were waiting to visit Augustana just one more time, or even for the first time, before making their college decision,” Mamer said. “This is a hard time for prospective students, seniors especially — it’s overwhelming for everyone.”

Because of these concerns, the admissions office has set up virtual Zoom tours for prospective students, according to Mamer. The Zoom sessions allow students to meet with an admission counselor, a financial aid representative, a professor and a current student. Admissions has also provided different Zoom sessions that were based on majors or student organizations.

“One of the most important parts of a student’s college search is the campus visit,” Mamer said. “As an admission office, we’ve done our best to emulate an on-campus visit experience virtually.” 

Admissions has also opened up scholarship opportunities for those students who may have to reconsider their college decision in light of COVID-19 and extended their recommended decision deadline to June 1 so students have more time to make a decision.

A decrease in enrollment will play a part in the university’s overall operating budget and could have financial implications for next year, according to Ellis. Fundraising, other revenue sources and COVID-19 related economic pressures will also have an impact.

“Augustana’s executive leadership team will continue to make decisions that balance the best interests of our students and the long-term financial health of the university,” Ellis said. “I’m confident in the decision-making of university leadership to guide us through these unprecedented times.”

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