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MSU Denver struggles to rebound from pandemic enrollment dip

MSU Denver saw steep declines in its enrollment throughout the pandemic. Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

College students are exhausted.

They’re working jobs off campus, battling unreliable transportation, taking care of family members, and managing their own pandemic stress.

Officials at Metropolitan State University of Denver think that those competing responsibilities — rather than the cost of college — are driving major declines in enrollment. 

Since 2019, the school’s enrollment has dipped 13.3% in fall 2021 and 15% this spring. That means about 2,500 fewer students attending each semester, either from not starting college or dropping out, despite an increase in support to enroll and finish their education.

It’s a worrisome trend, said Will Simpkins, MSU Denver vice president for student affairs. 

As the largest open-access institution in Colorado, the declines mean that fewer students who face the toughest hurdles to getting a college education are pursuing a degree in the state. And they’re students — many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, low-income, or of color — who would benefit the most from the opportunities of a college degree.

“What I’m worried about for the future of Colorado is as this settles down and as the labor market settles into some sort of stability, what happens to (those students’) long-term futures?” he said.

The university isn’t alone in its struggles to get students to come back. 

A recent national YouthTruth survey of about 28,000 high school seniors shows the Class of 2022 is more reluctant to attend two-year universities, and high school students who are first-generation, rural, or of color aren’t participating in as many counseling opportunities about college.

Those attitudes and experiences are reflected in enrollment across the country and state.

Nationally, enrollment shrunk in the fall and spring this school year compared to 2019. This spring, 827,000 fewer students were enrolled. Community colleges have accounted for half of the declines, according to a National Student Clearinghouse analysis

Colorado is no exception in its community college enrollment decline, although the state is one of the few to see overall enrollment increases across higher education institutions. The enrollment trends were first reported by Axios Denver.

For instance, the state’s flagship, University of Colorado Boulder, saw a slight increase in enrollment, from 34,130 in spring 2019 to 35,494 this fall, according to numbers provided by the school. The increase includes undergraduate and graduate student enrollment. 

But, like at MSU Denver, students aren’t attending every four-year university at the same rate. At the state’s second largest school, Colorado State University of Fort Collins leaders saw a slight decrease in enrollment. In the fall, the most recent numbers provided by the school, enrollment dipped from 33,995 in 2019 to 32,774 students this year.

To combat the pandemic’s impact, MSU Denver has used federal relief funds to do more to support students financially.

“We’ve invested in financial aid so we don’t think it’s a financial issue,” Simpkins said. 

The school also used federal money to better support students in enrolling at the school and in their unique needs. 

Students now get acceptance letters and financial aid information earlier so they can make a more informed decision about college, Simpkins said. The school also has increased its presence at area high schools by offering more dual enrollment and college-level classes.

And the school analyzes which students are most likely to stop going to college. Before the pandemic, the school retained 66.6% of freshman students going into their second year. The rate includes students dropping out and transferring. It now stands at about 63%.

MSU Denver’s leaders increased how much students can owe the university — from $200 to $2,000 — before they are not allowed to register for classes. School officials have also tried to find ways to eliminate the holds on student accounts.

Simpkins said school officials want to increase four-year graduation rates from 12.8% to 30% by 2030 and are working on strategies to help students achieve a degree within four years. 

Simpkins said the school wants to use this pandemic moment as a jumping off point.

“The question is can we pivot to a launch with the right investment and the right strategies,” he said, “and that’s what we’re working on.”

Jason Gonzales is a reporter covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at jgonzales@chalkbeat.org.

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