College Enrollment on the Rise

By Lichen Forster

Enrollment at UH Hilo and other universities across the country seems to be recovering from the hit taken the last two semesters as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics shows a three percent enrollment decrease for colleges nationwide from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Data published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows a similar decline of 3.5% between spring 2020 and spring 2021, the highest decline in spring enrollment since 2011 according to Forbes business magazine. Experts attribute the decline to the coronavirus pandemic - challenges related to illness, family members being out of work, and overall the new responsibilities potential college students may face in the midst of COVID-19.

However, the initial estimates of fall 2021 enrollment at major public universities (published by Forbes) showed promising increases, with Arizona and Oklahoma State welcoming some of their largest freshman classes ever, and the University of Missouri and Michigan State expecting increases (1% and 11%, respectively). Official reports released since then are supportive: Cleveland State has seen a 1% increase and Dakota College at Bottineau reports a 9.7% bump.

UH Hilo itself reports a 2.5% increase from the fall 2020 semester, similar to UH Mānoa’s increase of 6%. “The recent increase appears to be coming from a slight recovery of non-resident enrollment,” said Dr. Farrah Marie Gomes, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. “It is important to note that enrollment is a factor of both recruitment and retention.”

Non-resident enrollment has increased 10.01% since fall 2020, though is still down 3.83% from fall 2019 numbers.

“I think that [while] COVID hasn’t exactly gotten better, I think more and more people are growing more lax to it,” said Emma Labrade, a UH Hilo freshman who hails from California. “I think in 2020, people faced so much uncertainty that they were more likely to just stay in state, stay close to home...but with 2021, I think more people have gathered a little more hope, even if it’s not necessarily better.”

In contrast, resident enrollment has remained almost the same. After a 3.35% decrease in 2020, it has only decreased 0.48% from 2020 to 2021. Prior to the pandemic, enrollment at UH Hilo has been decreasing by about 3% each year. The 2021 census marks the first increase in UH Hilo’s enrollment in eight years.

“It is too early to tell exactly what type of long-term impact the pandemic will have on UH Hilo's ongoing enrollment,” Gomes said. “We are hearing that while some students have struggled with the shift to mostly online learning, other students have found this modality to be helpful in completing their degrees. We continue to look at ways that we can accommodate as many student needs as possible.”

A group of staff at the UH Hilo Admissions office