The coronavirus crisis: Enrollment plummets at three Hudson colleges

Colleges in Hudson County and across the country have been battling the coronavirus for nearly two years.

But their biggest battle isn’t keeping classrooms open — it’s finding solutions to declining enrollment, according to state and national figures.

Undergraduate enrollment at colleges nationwide fell 3.1%, or 465,300 students, in the fall from a year earlier, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The drop is similar to the previous fall and contributes to a 6.6% decline in undergraduate enrollment since 2019.

Preliminary fall 2021 numbers for Hudson County undergraduate enrollment are striking: The University of New Jersey City saw a 10% drop (including a 29.8% drop in first admissions) , Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City by 9.4% and Hudson County Community College by 3.7. %.

Only Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken bucked the trend, with a 7.3% increase.

“Students and families understand the value of a Stevens degree, which is why the university’s class of 2025 is the largest cohort of undergraduate students in Stevens history…carrying undergraduate enrollment to more than 4,000 students,” spokeswoman Thania Berios said. “Applications continued a decade-long upward trend, topping 10,000 for the third year in a row.”

Among state colleges — whose enrollment fell 4.2% overall for the fall semester — only New Jersey Institute of Technology saw an enrollment increase in September, though it wasn’t. than 1.1%. Private four-year institutions fare better than public institutions, losing only 1.6% of their students.

NJCU and HCCC officials say the economic impact of the pandemic has taken a toll on their student body, which they say comes mostly from low-income families.

“Our students are older, have lower incomes and balance work, children and various other obligations with their studies,” said HCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Christopher. “Many struggled to pay for housing, utilities, and some opted to work full time after a family member lost their job or had their hours reduced.”

New freshman Dan Blackmore, from England, arrives on the campus of St. Peter’s University in Jersey City on move-in day, Tuesday, January 18, 2022. (Reena Rose Sibayan | The Jersey Journal)Reena Rose Sibayan | The Journal of Jersey

Christopher said the HCCC is doing better than the national average for two-year institutions, where enrollment has fallen 13.2% nationally since 2019. The HCCC, which last year canceled $4.8 million in student debt between the Spring 2020 and Sprint 2021 sessions, has lost 12% of its students since 2019.

South of Kennedy Boulevard, the NJCU is also struggling.

“Early on in the pandemic, we saw non-traditional students, adult learners, graduate students…trying to balance work and school life and they weren’t able to re-enroll. These students are coming back now,” said Ben Rohdin, vice president of enrollment management and student success at the school.

“But the enduring factor has been these more traditional high school students from low-income families who are still trying to recover from the pandemic.”

At St. Pierre, strategies to increase enrollment have been thwarted by the pandemic, so President Eugene Cornacchia has instituted a tuition freeze in all degree programs for the 2020 academic year- 21. Returning full-time undergraduate students also received a one-time grant of up to $250 to help defray costs.

“These cost-cutting measures, along with our already generous scholarships and grants, have helped provide a bridge for students to continue pursuing their studies and benefiting from a high-quality Jesuit education,” Cornacchia said.

Experts fear that the steady decline in enrollment signals a shift in attitude towards higher education and threatens the economic trajectory of a generation.

“The longer this goes on, the more it starts to build its own momentum as a cultural shift and not just a short-term effect of pandemic disruptions,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in an interview.

“Students question the value of college. They can watch friends who graduated last year or the year before who didn’t go and seem to be doing well. They work; their salaries are on the rise.

Job vacancies are at near record highs, and the lure of what many economists say is a market for job seekers could siphon off students, especially adult learners. Indeed, one of the sharpest

Falls in enrollment this fall were for people 24 and older, particularly at four-year colleges, according to data from the Clearinghouse.

Shapiro is widely concerned that lukewarm higher education enrollment will impact the nation for years to come.

“There’s a lot at stake,” he said. “You have to put the students back on track, re-engage them.”

And to make matters worse, the nation is on the tail end of high school enrollment growth, Rohdin said.

“In 2025, 2026, there is going to be a precipitous drop in the number of high school graduates – not because of the pandemic, it follows birth rates,” he said. “So all of higher education, especially in the North East, is preparing for a drop in enrolment. This is on top of the fact that our economy is recovering and there are more jobs than ever, especially low-income students seem to be looking to the job market rather than college as a choice.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. HCCC’s “Golden Door/La Puerta Dorada” project recently received a five-year, $3 million grant from the United States Department of Education, focused on Hispanic and Latino students who represent just over half of HCCC’s student body. Additionally, students have benefited from increased flexibility with payment plans.

Rohdin said the NJCU is stepping up its outreach efforts with high school students and, more importantly, New Jersey has implemented “historic increases” in its direct aid program.

“It is one of the only states in the entire country to have historically increased its scholarship program. “Last fall there was an increase of about 25%…and for NJCU students, that difference meant they would be able to cover their tuition and have some money extra money in their pockets to pay for books, transportation and accommodation costs.

The Washington Post contributed to this report.

St. Peter's University

Students take a course at Saint Peter’s University in Jersey City. The school saw a 9.4% decline in undergraduate enrollment for the fall 2021 semester, according to preliminary numbers compiled by the state Department of Higher Education. (Photo by Michael Marmora)EJA

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