Attendees enjoy UTEP's Minerpalooza event on Aug. 27. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

For the second year in a row, the University of Texas at El Paso has seen a decrease in enrollment after more than two decades of growth.

Overall enrollment at UTEP dropped 3.5% — or by 876 students — from the fall 2020 semester. A total of 24,003 students are enrolled this fall, according to figures UTEP officials released to El Paso Matters this week.

Last year, UTEP saw a 1.2% enrollment decrease from 2019, the first time the school saw a decline in 21 years.

Gary Edens, the vice president of student affairs, said in 2019 that UTEP aimed to see 1% to 3% annual increases in enrollment, the El Paso Times reported. Since then, enrollment has decreased about 5%, at a time when enrollment rates at four-year colleges and universities in Texas increased by a little over 1%.

Despite the decrease this year, Edens’ goal of a 1–3% increase remains, UTEP officials said in an email.

“We typically model between a 3% decline to a 3% increase and then monitor our weekly enrollment data to get a clear sense of what is happening any given year,” officials said.

UTEP’s enrollment first surpassed 20,000 in 2007 and continued to grow steadily, though the growth slowed in recent years. In fall 2019, the last time UTEP saw an increase, enrollment grew by 26 students from the prior year.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a reason for the decrease, officials said: “Student uncertainties and concerns about COVID were clearly one factor. Many students are also balancing tough economic uncertainties, as well as family and medical issues.”

School officials added that recruitment efforts have been hindered by the pandemic.

“While we were able to recruit many students using (the) internet and online platforms, it’s not ideal,” officials said.

As a part of the school’s 2030 strategic plan, President Heather Wilson seeks to expand UTEP’s recruitment efforts beyond West Texas as a way to boost enrollment. Officials said the long-term goal is still taking shape.

Texas four-year colleges and universities saw an overall 1.4% drop in undergraduate enrollment this fall, according to Jonathan Feinstein, Texas’ state director of the national nonprofit Education Trust. Graduate enrollment, however, increased by almost 1%, he said in an email.

Feinstein said his data is from the National Student Clearinghouse Research, a research nonprofit that partners with colleges and universities across the nation to track educational trends.

El Paso Community College reported a 6% decrease this semester, following a 10% decrease from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

A collective look at enrollment trends won’t be available until next year, Feinstein said, as state data is still being collected for this semester.

“This week the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board released preliminary fall enrollment counts and will issue certified data in January. So it’s important to view UTEP’s data as a first look that we can’t yet compare to national or state trends,” he said.

The preliminary figures from the Coordinating Board were released earlier this week. One finding states overall enrollment for the state remains below levels reported in 2019.

Despite the overall enrollment declines, UTEP’s increased retention rate could foreshadow its ability to recover from the pandemic’s student drop, Feinstein said. Retention rates measure the percentage of students who returned.

UTEP saw a 77.5% overall retention rate among undergraduates, a number that shows a return to pre-pandemic figures, officials said in an email. In fall 2018, UTEP had a 69% in retention rate, according to previous figures.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.