Half of Utah’s public colleges saw a decline in student enrollment this fall — and, alarmingly, the biggest drops were at the most affordable and accessible schools in the state.

The concerning headcounts were released Wednesday about halfway through a semester like no other. While losses were largely anticipated as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, state officials say the uneven impact was not.

“This is now possibly making the inequities in higher education even worse,” said Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner who oversees the universities in the state. “With these numbers, we’re definitely worried about how this hurts our students without resources. This has probably widened the gap for them, unfortunately.”

The decreases have centered on four of the eight public universities in the state: among them, those that serve the most diverse and lowest-income students.

Salt Lake Community College, for instance, had the largest drop at 7.5%, enrolling 2,224 fewer students than last year. That appears to be the most extensive loss ever in the institution’s history or at any in the state.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)
(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

At the same time, the school has the highest percentage of students who work while earning their degrees. And it has the second lowest tuition in the state (at $3,488 per year, just one dollar more than the cheapest, Snow College).

The drop in enrollment then likely means that the pandemic has led to some students at the community college — whether through the loss of their own job or unemployment in their family — being unable to afford to take classes this fall.

“We’re in such an unprecedented economic downturn,” said SLCC spokesman Joy Tlou. “And it’s going to hurt our students who come to us because we’re affordable.”

The school saw a similar, though smaller, dip during the 2008 recession. But it had increases in the years after with individuals who were laid off returning to learn a new trade. Tlou said he hopes that will happen again. SLCC is currently offering “learn and work” programming for those individuals, with a few thousand enrolled, but it’s noncredit and doesn’t count toward its student population numbers.

Additionally, the college has the highest percentage of minority students, at 36%, in the state. So the enrollment decrease there is likely impacting individuals of color more.

It now has a total of 27,293 students.

Utah Valley University in Orem followed SLCC with a 1.9% dip and 792 fewer students, the first downturn at the biggest college in the state in at least the last seven years. After that, Utah State University’s enrollment went down by 119 students. And Weber State’s was down by 48.

The four other public colleges in Utah saw some increases, but not enough to compensate for the drops, Woolstenhulme noted. Overall, the state had 330 fewer students enrolled this fall than in 2019, for a total of 189,021. That’s the first decline, statewide, since 2013, after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lowered the age requirement for young members of the faith wanting to serve a mission and many left college or delayed attending to do so.

Since then, though, many have returned and the student body population in Utah was growing by 4,000, on average, each year. Until now.

“We’re obviously very concerned by the impact of the pandemic on our students and the declines it’s causing,” Woolstenhulme said.

Utah Valley University was previously seeing some of the biggest gains. In 2019, it jumped by nearly 2,000 students. This year, it slipped back down to a total of 40,936, though it’s still the largest in the state.

The dip there also points to more vulnerable students dropping out or choosing to postpone attending.

SLCC, UVU and Weber State all operate under open admission policies and are the only schools here to do so, accepting any student who applies, regardless of GPA or test scores. That makes them the most accessible.

The decline points to students feeling like they can’t attend — rather than being kept from doing so by the institution.

Scott Trotter, the spokesman for UVU, said the school has seen a big drop in freshmen this year, in particular. The size of the incoming class has decreased by 4% compared to last year. The sophomore class also shrunk by 1%.

“I see that as being directly related to COVID,” he said.

Utah State has seen dipping enrollment over the past few years. But this year, it’s likely because the northern Utah school, which is a residential college, has had to limit the number of students it can house in its dorms because of COVID-19. It declined 0.4%, for a total of 27,691 students.

Weber State, which is also one of the more affordable schools in Utah, has had years of increases leading up to the pandemic. Having a dip now, even at just 0.2% compared to last year, also points to COVID-19 as the cause. It now has 29,596 students.

Part of that might be students choosing not to attend school this semester because they didn’t want to take online classes. That could mean sitting out a semester or transferring to one of the schools in the state that’s operating mostly in person.

While Weber State has increased its online classes by 43% for a total of 69% remote, Southern Utah University has taken the opposite approach — and it saw a massive gain in enrollment.

SUU has an additional 1,358 students this fall compared to last year, or 12.1% growth. Meanwhile, it’s got just 35% of its classes entirely online (compared to 14% before the pandemic) and 65% in person.

The school’s spokesman, David Bishop, said he believes that’s at least part of why SUU has seen such interest. Students, he said, are coming in from across the state and nation for face-to-face learning.

“We’re super excited to see this,” he said. “It’s the largest student population we’ve ever had at SUU.”

Nicole Zaccaria, a freshmen from Arizona, said in a news release that in-person classes were why she decided to go there. “When I got an email from SUU saying that there would be face-to-face classes, I leaped with joy,” she said, noting she felt they were also being held safely.

It’s the only school in the state — and likely one of just a handful in the nation — to see double-digit growth during the pandemic. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, on average, that most universities in the country declined by 2.5% in enrollment this fall.

SUU’s school’s neighbors in southern and central Utah — Dixie State University and Snow College — also had similar gains at 7.6% and 7.7%, respectively. And both also teach the majority of their classes in person: 85% at Dixie and 100% at Snow.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune
Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

Snow said in a news release Wednesday that “seems to resonate well with students' desire to have some sort of normalcy to their education.”

The last school to see an increase was the University of Utah. Its student population grew modestly this fall, by 0.7% or 228 students, for a total of 33,080 after dropping slightly last year. That’s the largest student body the school has had in its 170-year history.