While most of the state’s public universities have largely rebounded from the enrollment drops they saw during the pandemic, two Utah colleges are continuing to struggle — and for one, it is the third consecutive year of declines.
That continuing drop is at Salt Lake Community College. And it is cause for some alarm with the school considered one of the most affordable and accessible in the state, and with the most diverse student body of any of the eight institutions of higher education here.
SLCC lost the biggest share of students this fall, with its enrollment dipping by more than 800. It went from 27,225 enrolled in 2021 to 26,348 students now, according to the annual fall enrollment numbers released Monday by the Utah System of Higher Education.
That drop is larger than the decline SLCC faced last year, when it dipped by about 68 students — not a significant downturn. But it adds to the major decrease from 2020, when the school lost 2,224 students.
Combined, over the last three years affected by COVID-19, SLCC’s enrollment has gone down more than 3,000 students from a peak of 29,517 enrolled in 2019, the last time the school saw growth.
Typically, community colleges see a boon in enrollment during national crises, like a pandemic, or economic difficulties, like inflation, because they offer cheaper enrollment and new job opportunities for workers who have been laid off. But SLCC has not followed that expectation, nor have other community colleges in the country.
The school, though, said that its drop hasn’t been as significant as similar schools in nearby states — largely thanks to Utah’s strong economy.
SLCC spokesperson Peta Owens-Liston also said two of the school’s eight campuses — Jordan and Taylorsville Redwood — saw increases in in-person enrollment. And the college, overall, has been able to increase its Latino population this year by 3.8%, making it now 24.8% of the student body there (nearly double the Latino population in Utah, as a whole, which is 15%).
The college is “encouraged” by some of those wins as it continues to battle the dips.
It was joined in dropping enrollment by another affordable school: Snow College in central Utah.
Snow College — which has the lowest tuition of any school in the state (SLCC is second lowest) — decreased enrollment by 109 students this fall, or 1.79%. While that’s not as large of a dip as SLCC’s 3.22%, Snow College is now at 5,997 students.
The small college has historically had the smallest population of any public school in the state. But the drop comes after the school had celebrated having more than 6,000 students for the first time last year.
This year, the school said in a release, it is focusing on retention and vocational education enrollment.
It has drawn public attention this past year as its president stepped down for a job in the Middle East and a student was kidnapped and assaulted last December; the alleged perpetrator has been charged.
The drops at the two schools have administrators worried about access for low-income students.
Even with the losses at those schools, there is some growth to celebrate. The total headcount across the system rebounded by about 3,000 students — similar to the gain from last year, too. During the pandemic in 2020, the system lost 330 students, the first decline in at least a decade.
There are now 194,921 students total in public higher education in Utah.
“Though we lost some momentum during the pandemic, I am optimistic that we will continue to see more students benefit from completing a certificate or degree at USHE colleges,” said David Woolstenhulme, the commissioner who oversees the state’s universities, in a statement Monday.
Here are other takeaways from the annual fall headcounts, conducted each year in October.
Utah Valley University has the biggest student body and had the biggest bump
UVU in Orem added 1,837 students this year, keeping its spot as the biggest university in the state.
That jump is also the largest across the system this fall, based on the raw number of students gained (based on percentages, it was beat by Southern Utah University).
UVU now has 43,099 students — the first time it has surpassed 43,000. And it has made up for the difference it lost from the pandemic and then some.
This year, UVU also boasts a fall enrollment with the highest number of female students ever for the school, who have now beat out the number of male students taking classes there. At the university, 50.4% of the students are women.
The school is an open admissions college, meaning applicants don’t need test scores or a certain GPA to be accepted. That has drawn a steady crowd of enrollees, along with more flexibility to take classes online, according to the school.
“UVU’s approach to education enables all students to come as they are,” said UVU President Astrid Tuminez in a statement.
Southern Utah University continues explosive growth
SUU grew this year by 5.28% — the biggest percentage jump of any of the eight public colleges.
That follows a massive 8.2% jump last year, in a continuing trend of expansion for the school.
SUU currently has 14,330 students, growing by 719 in the latest numbers.
The school credited the bulk of the increase to online programs. It has a new offering where students can get a bachelor’s degree for $9,000.
SUU President Mindy Benson said the school has made a concerted effort to grow online, “taking into consideration the impact of on-campus growth on the Cedar City community.” That has created a housing shortage there.
Now, 17% of the school’s enrollment — or 2,437 students — are online only. And that enrollment saw an even bigger bump than the school overall, growing by 5.5%.
The university also hasn’t raised tuition for four years in a row. And it is offering its first doctorate degree program this year, a program in clinical psychology.
The University of Utah’s unique class of freshmen
It’s the third year in a row that the U. has welcomed its largest ever class of freshmen — set to graduate in 2026.
The state’s flagship school added 5,520 freshman this fall. And that group boasts new records for diversity. They have the largest number of incoming students of color ever (1,655, or 30% of the class), as well as the highest number of female students (2,779, or 50.3% of the class).
They also have the best average GPA of any incoming class before them, at 3.66 out of 4.0.
Overall, the U. now has 34,734 students enrolled, gaining 272 this year or 0.8%.
U. President Taylor Randall laid out the goal in his inauguration speech of growing the university to 40,000 students in the next decade. Based on the growth this year, it will need to exceed its current rate to meet that.
Utah State University starts gaining again
After three consecutive years of decline, USU has turned the corner and reported a growing student body this fall.
The Logan school grew by a modest 517 students for a total of 27,943. That actually offsets its previous losses. Over the past three years combined, it had declined by 506 students.
Utah Tech University gets a new name and has the longest track record of growth
Utah Tech has welcomed its new name this year, leaving behind concerns about racist connotations in the past.
And along with that, the St. George school has chartered into a seventh consecutive year of growth with its student body — including even during the pandemic. It now has 12,556 students, gaining 290 this fall.
Since fall 2014, the school has grown by a substantial 50%.
Additionally, the school champions having a student body that is 57% female — likely the highest across the system.
To accommodate all of its growth, the school intends to add a new dorm building to its campus that will open in fall 2024 and house more than 500 students.
SLCC’s continuing issues
SLCC has the highest ratio of students who work while earning their degrees of any school in the state.
The college believes that has contributed to its decline. More students are facing economic hardship and are having to focus on work rather than class.
But the Utah System of Higher Education said the college, as well as Snow College, has also been helping students through “non-traditional programs” that are not counted as part of its enrollment. Those include short-term training programs, distance education and noncredit technical education.
The hope is that some of those students will experience what SLCC and Snow have to offer and come back when they can enroll in a degree program.
Graduate student decline
While undergraduate students increased across the system, those seeking graduate degrees in Utah declined slightly this fall.
In the state, 0.34% fewer students are enrolled in graduate program than in 2021.
Some colleges bucked that, like SUU, which saw a 9.8% increase in graduate students.
Still behind the pandemic — but a student body as large as a city
While the improved numbers across the system as a whole 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 and 2022, each year is still about 2,000 students behind on typical growth. And the system also did not gain the usual 5,000 students in 2020, either. That leaves a deficit of about 9,000, then, from where the student numbers could have been if not for the setbacks of COVID-19.
Part of that is even the growth that has happened is not as large as it used to be. Weber State University, for instance, added students this year — but the gain was slim. It changed by 170 students, or 0.57%.
Even still, the total number of college students in Utah is higher than the number of residents in West Valley City, the second largest city in Utah (with a population of 139,110). And it is nearing the state capital, Salt Lake City (with a population of more than 200,478).
The state hasn’t released the number of student enrolled in technical colleges yet — that is expected later this month. But added in, it will likely mean there are more students total across technical and traditional colleges than the number of people living in the capital. Last year, there were nearly 20,000 students in the technical schools here.