Steve Robinson: With enrollment numbers, how you count is as important as what you count

Last month, the Utah System of Higher Education released fall semester enrollment numbers for each of the state’s eight public colleges and universities.

In general, the news is good. The data shows most of Utah’s higher education institutions emerging from the stagnation of the COVID-19 pandemic and defying declining college enrollment trends across the country.

But they don’t tell the whole story. How students are counted is as important as the final tally. I encourage state lawmakers, business leaders, parents and students to look a little deeper.

Most of Utah’s college and university enrollment numbers grew among non-matriculated students. In other words, students who are not seeking a degree. To most, that may seem like a distinction without much difference but, in higher education, matriculating and declaring your intention to earn a degree make all the difference.

The vast majority of Utah’s non-matriculated students are high school concurrent enrollment students. The rest are career and technical students and students taking one-off college classes. Think: coding bootcamps, cooking classes, language courses and career and technical education (including at the Utah State Prison).

These are classes that pique your curiosity, engage your mind, update your skillset and serve our economy — whether as a high school student, tradesperson or a retiree. We encourage high school students to get as much college credit as they can between AP classes, summer leveling-up courses and concurrent enrollment. Career and technical education prepare students for high-demand jobs important to our economy. And continuing education is one of the great joys of life. All of these students are enriching their lives at college campuses across our state.

But non-matriculating students are not traditional college students. When considering enrollment data, it’s important to compare apples with apples.

At the University of Utah, the fall 2022 semester marks the third year in a row of record first-year student enrollment, with the university welcoming a diverse and well-prepared freshman class — 5,520 students with an average GPA of 3.66. That 3% first-year class growth contributed to an overall 2% bump in undergraduate enrollment over 2021.

That number may look modest in comparison to the nearly 5% growth at some of our peer institutions across the state, but I would challenge state leaders to consider the numbers behind the numbers.

At some Utah colleges and universities, one of every three students enrolled is non-matriculated. At another, 45% of the student body is non-matriculated. When nearly half a university’s students are not pursuing a degree, and not on campus, it’s a mismatched comparison with the U.

Among Utah’s colleges and universities, enrollment of matriculated students grew at only two higher education institutions: the University of Utah and Utah State University. Among our Research 1 peers in the prestigious Association of American Universities, just 2.8% of students are non-matriculated. At the U, only 3% of our students are non-matriculated, which means 97% are matriculated and enrolled for credit towards a degree.

At the U., we are committed to student success. We want you to get into college. Make our campus your own. Connect with other students and your professors as you dig deep into creative writing, economics theory or social work, or any of the more than 200 degree programs we offer. Take advantage of all the amazing experiences the university provides—from first-year research to study abroad to entrepreneurship opportunities. Then get on with it!

We define student success as graduation. Two-thirds of U. graduates complete their degrees within six years — the highest timely graduation rate among Utah’s public universities. These degree-earning students are essential to Utah’s healthy economy and workforce development. The University of Utah’s high matriculation and graduation rates are the numbers behind the numbers.

Please don’t get me wrong; this counting lesson is not a knock against Utah’s other colleges and universities. We all serve unique communities with diverse and distinct needs, from Logan to St. George. But facts matter. And understanding where a “fact” comes from also matters.

Every high school student in Utah should think seriously about where they attend college. At the U., we strive to become a top 10 public university that will impact the lives of all 3.4 million Utahns — partnering with our sister institutions to educate the young people of Utah, leading cutting-edge research and providing exceptional patient care in communities across our state.

If you want an excellent education that inspires lifelong success and makes our world a better place, join us!

Steve Robinson is senior vice president for enrollment management at the University of Utah.