WRAL Investigates

Pandemic causes higher education enrollment drain nationally, but local universities holding steady

Posted December 23, 2020 7:40 p.m. EST

— The pandemic created extra lessons for college students and their institutions – not all of them positive.

Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University hoped to spend fall semester on campus before spikes in coronavirus cases sent many back home and online.

Megan Maiorano, a civil engineering major at N.C. State, said she's trying to make the most of a disappointing senior year.

"Everyone I know is just trying to ride it out and get to the finish line," Maiorano said.

A national report shows enrollment at four-year colleges was off by about 2 percent this fall from a year ago.

Spokespeople at UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State said enrollment at both campuses actually increased from fall 2019. Still, both schools are trimming budgets after losing large chunks of their campus housing and dining revenue.

Spring semester numbers are still in flux at N.C. State as some students reduce course loads, while UNC-Chapel Hill sees spring registration trending up 7.3 percent right now as fall 2021 early admission applications broke records.

"We appreciate the enthusiasm students continue to have for Carolina – as well as their trust and flexibility during a challenging year for our country and the world," Michael Davis, associate director of admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill, said in a statement. "We haven’t seen a huge number of students defer enrollment this year, and we expect that the number of students attending Carolina will remain consistent in the spring."

Duke University saw fall undergraduate enrollment dip about 5 percent as some students opted out in the pandemic.

"I don't think that this in any way is going to spell the end of colleges and universities and the learning experience," said Michael Schoenfeld, chief communications and government relations officer at Duke. "Being in the classroom was probably one of the safest places you could be."

After a successful virus testing program and a fraction of the cases of other schools, Duke sees registration numbers returning to normal while early admission applications for next fall hit all-time highs, Schoenfeld said.

St. Augustine's University in Raleigh lost President Irving McPhail to COVID-19, but even with all the challenges, fall enrollment climbed 5 percent.

"Many of our students and our faculty and staff are personally impacted by COVID-19," said Daniel Velez, vice president of enrollment management at St. Augustine's. "We would not have wanted it this way."

Shaw University officials said enrollment is holding steady for now, while spring enrollment at Meredith College is off about 2.5 percent.

Many schools are still working out the details of spring semester – in-person versus online classes, capacity limits in residence halls and virus testing programs – and expect to see more challenges in the coming months.

Meanwhile, students like Maiorano look to turn disappointment into a teachable moment.

"It shows that I can adapt to situations," she said.

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