Students are slowly starting to come back and enroll at Utah’s public colleges this year after a significant drop last fall in the face of the pandemic.
Even with losses continuing at some schools, the total headcount across the system rebounded by 3,000, according to numbers released by the state Monday. There are now 192,102 students total in higher education here.
“We’ve come out of a challenging year,” said Dave Woolstenhulme, the commissioner who oversees the state’s universities, “and I am pleased that enrollments have increased overall.”
The number is up from 189,021 last year, when the system lost 330 students. That was the first decline in at least a decade. And it had administrators worried about access for low-income students, with the impact hitting the hardest at the cheapest and most diverse schools in the state.
Salt Lake Community College saw the largest decline then, losing more than 2,000 students last year. It dropped again this year, but not by as much. It had 68 fewer students enroll than in 2020, a change of just a quarter of a percentage. SLCC has a total of 27,225 students.
Meanwhile, the college has the highest ratio of students who work while earning their degrees of any school in the state. And it has the second lowest tuition (at $3,632 per year, just $15 more than the cheapest, Snow College).
“We believe our students have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, and many are finding it necessary to focus their efforts on work and family during this time,” said SLCC spokeswoman Erika Shubin.
Utah State University also saw a dip, with 265 fewer students than last fall. That continues, though, an ongoing trend for the school in Logan, which has had smaller declines for the past few years.
Those are the only schools that had decreases this year. Last year, four of the eight public colleges and universities — or half of those in the state — did.
While the improved numbers are a welcome sign, they’re not quite back to pre-pandemic levels yet. In 2019, for instance, the higher education system in the state saw an additional 5,402 students enroll. That’s an average year.
And that means, even with the gains in 2021, the year is still about 2,000 students behind on typical growth. And the system also didn’t gain the usual 5,000 students last year either. That leaves a deficit of about 7,000, then, from where the student numbers could have been if not for COVID-19.
Woolstenhulme said in a statement: “It is imperative that we continue to work with students statewide to access and complete higher education.”
Here are other takeaways from the annual fall headcounts, conducted each year in October.
The University of Utah’s unique freshman class
The University of Utah welcomed its largest ever freshman class this year — set to graduate in 2025. This is the second year in a row it has hit that record.
This year, enrollment of first-time students increased 19.6% to 5,361 students. That’s the first class of over 5,000 students ever at the U. Last fall, first-year students increased 5.5%. So even with the pandemic, it was improving.
The school released unique statistics Monday on the makeup of the class. It is 29% students of color — a landmark number for the state. The average GPA is 3.64. The most popular major is pre-business. And the most common names are Ethan and Emily.
Meanwhile, the school’s overall enrollment increased by 4.2% for a total of 34,462 students. And it saw records, too, with graduate students, transfer students, international students and out-of-state students signing up for classes.
Every benchmark was passed.
Steve Robinson, senior associate vice president for Enrollment Management, said in a statement: “The fact that we continued to significantly grow our enrollment throughout a pandemic demonstrates that we are succeeding in expanding access to the U.”
Utah Valley University remains the largest school
UVU in Orem added 326 students this year, keeping its top spot as the biggest university in Utah. It has 41,262 students total now.
Last year, the school lost 792, so it hasn’t quite made up that difference. But it’s back above 41,000 again.
This year, UVU boasts a fall enrollment with the highest number of female students ever for the school, as well as the highest number of Black students in its history.
“UVU continues to be a place where students from all walks of life can achieve their academic goals and positively contribute to our state,” said President Astrid Tuminez in a statement.
Southern Utah University had the largest increase
SUU grew this year by 8.2% — the biggest jump of any of the eight public colleges.
That matches the similar growth at Southwest Technical College, showcasing a boon in that area of the state. SUU currently has 13,611 students.
The school credited the bulk of the increase to a new online program where students can get a bachelor’s degree for $9,000. It also said some students opted for online as the community has faced a housing shortage in Cedar City. The university also hasn’t raised tuition for three years in a row.
While it had the largest percentage increase, the U. had the biggest jump in raw numbers, welcoming 1,382 more students this year than last. It now has the second largest student population in the state, followed by Weber State at 29,744.
Snow College is the smallest at 6,106.
A statewide student population as large as a city
The number of college students here is higher than the number of residents in West Valley City, the second largest city in Utah (with a population of 140,230). And it’s nearing the state capital, Salt Lake City (with a population of more than 199,723).
If you add in the eight technical colleges, along with the eight traditional universities and colleges, the total stretches beyond that to 211,954 students.
Growth with technical colleges
Of the eight technical colleges in Utah, seven grew this year.
The biggest jump in raw numbers was at Ogden-Weber Technical College, which saw an additional 422 students for a new total of 4,035 there. That makes it the biggest in the state.
The highest percentage growth occurred at Southwest Technical College, which grew by 222 students and 20.65%. It now has a total of 1,297.
Only one technical college saw a decline. That was Davis Technical College. It dropped down by 213 students.
Overall, the system of technical colleges has 19,852 students, up 1,568 from last year.
The issue with SLCC
When the pandemic started and many people lost their jobs, Salt Lake Community College was seen by the state as a way that some workers could easily go back to school to learn a new trade. That hasn’t exactly panned out.
The school was seeing steady increases in students before COVID-19. In the two years of the pandemic, though, it’s lost nearly 2,300.
“While our overall headcount is down slightly this year, we are concerned with any decrease in enrollment,” said Shubin, the spokeswoman there.
The Utah System of Higher Education said the college has also been helping students through “non-traditional programs” that aren’t counted as part of its enrollment. Those include short-term training programs, distance education and noncredit technical education.
A news release from the system noted: “Leadership is working to present this data in the future for a more holistic picture of enrollment at our institutions.”
The school also has plans to make applying and attending SLCC easier. It’s removed its $40 application fee and it’s offering more scholarships.
Shubin added: “Our enrollment team also made a great effort to directly follow up with students who had started the enrollment process for this year but had not finished it.”
Consecutive incline and decline
Dixie State University in St. George had its sixth consecutive year of growth. Its student population is now at 12,266.
That comes even as the school has been in the national spotlight as it looks to change its name away from associations with slavery and the Confederacy. Many in the local community have protested the move.
Meanwhile, Utah State University in Logan saw its third consecutive year of decline. It is currently at 27,426 students, down from 27,932 in 2018. The dips there have been small, though. This year, the drop accounts for less than 1%. Last year, it lost 119 students.
The school has said in recent years that is focusing more on retention of students and getting them to complete their degrees, rather than quantity of those enrolling.