MURRAY – The Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education recently sounded the alarm on declining college enrollment numbers around the state, calling on education leaders to take decisive steps to combat the problem, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19. 

Although Murray State University’s enrollment numbers have increased for the last two years, President Bob Jackson said recruiting has been difficult because of the pandemic. However, he said he believes something resembling normalcy will resume as more people continue to get the coronavirus vaccine through the spring and summer months.

A Feb. 5 news release from CPE said that the agency’s latest data shows that undergraduate enrollment at four-year public universities declined 2.1% in fall 2020, and that enrollment is also down 7.3% compared to five years ago. At the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, the number dropped 10.5% this past semester and 12.3% compared to fall 2015, the CPE said. In addition, Kentucky’s in-state college-going rate among new high school graduates also fell from 54% in 2015 to 50.5% in 2019.

CPE members adopted a resolution on Feb. 4 calling attention to the downturn and citing fears that it could harm educational and economic opportunities in Kentucky. They also warned that drops in enrollment could prevent the state from meeting key attainment goals in CPE’s strategic agenda.

“The Council on Postsecondary Education recognizes the urgency and the need to reverse the trends stated above,” the resolution reads. “The Council therefore deems this a priority that (CPE President Aaron Thompson) work closely with campus leaders, K-12 partners, the Commonwealth Education Continuum, and other stakeholders to implement bold actions and strategies to mitigate the near term enrollment impacts of COVID-19.”

“The Council understands that this is a systematic concern that demands a systematic response, and we expect this work to continue beyond a single academic year,” Thompson said in response to the resolution. “We all have a tremendous stake in higher education, and our progress as a state depends greatly on our success and recovery at the campus level.”

Despite the struggles colleges and universities are having around the state and the country, Jackson said he is encouraged that Murray State has experienced two years of positive upward enrollment trends. Of course, one of those years started before the pandemic, but the fall 2020 semester still showed improvement, he said.

“Our first time freshman were up 6% in the fall, so we beat the negative trend for most institutions,” Jackson said. “I mean, nationally, there were some big negative numbers at certain institutions, and community colleges were down significantly. We were up in first time freshman for two years in a row, so I’m very proud of all our folks in enrollment management and our faculty, staff and alumni, everyone that assisted in all the recruiting efforts.”

Jackson said first time transfers were also up significantly, and first time graduate students were up about 20%. 

“We weathered the storm in those areas fairly well,” he said. “Obviously, it’s too early to tell what next fall looks like, but the CPE and many others are very concerned just because of the environment we were in. We haven’t been able to recruit normally now for a year. It makes it very difficult, so we’re doing a lot of remote visits, we’re doing campus visits, but a whole lot less than in the past. We’ve been in a lot fewer high schools. In the last couple of years, I, along with our recruiting staff, have visited a lot of high schools, and that’s been cut down significantly this year.”

Jackson said the uncertainty surrounding academics also appears to have led to a sharp decline in students filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

“We are all concerned about next fall, and that’s a concern nationally, statewide and at Murray State,” he said. “I believe that many families and students, because of this pandemic, are not completing the FAFSA applications. Those applications are down around 20% nationally and in Kentucky. A FAFSA is the first step toward a college degree (for many students). It enables many students to get Pell grants, which do not have to be paid back.”

Jackson noted that statistics show, on average, that a college degree increases your lifetime earnings 2-3 times over those who do not have a college degree, and also reduces your chances of unemployment significantly. 

“So we’re trying to message well at Murray State to our prospective students and families the value of a college education, the value of completing the FAFSA, the value of scholarship applications,” he said. “Last year, we awarded $115 million in scholarships, financial aid and other types of aid to our students, and that’s a record amount. And Murray State is regularly pointed out as one of the best college values. US News and World Report, Washington Monthly and Money magazine all say that. So our job is to continue to message that so students and families do understand that there’s great value here, that the quality of education is excellent. 

“Most of our students — 99% is the last reported number — receive some type of scholarship or financial aid. That’s above average and more than most of our peers. When you look at it on a per-student basis, it’s significant. So from a value standpoint, when you look at Kentucky, Murray State University has been pointed out and continues to be pointed out as the best value in Kentucky and the surrounding area when you look at those cost and quality. Murray State is always at the top of that list.”

CPE said it is working with six other educational organizations to promote the the FAFSA form. “Submitting the form is an important first step to receive need-based aid and other financial assistance for college,” the CPE release said. “However, submissions are down 19% among Kentucky high school seniors this year, compared to a 10% decline nationally, according to the Form Your Future website.”

Although the current academic year continues to be abnormal with the conditions surrounding it, Jackson said he has faith that things will be much better as more vaccinations are rolled out.

“Once vaccinations are more prevalent and when we get into April and May and especially through the summer, I think everyone who wants a vaccine is going to be able to get a vaccine,” he said. “So I really believe we will enter next fall in a normal and traditional manner. It may not feel like 2019 exactly, but it’s going to be more normal and it’s going to be very different than it is today. I think we will return fairly quickly to a level of normalcy, and that’s what our students and families want and what our faculty and staff want. That’s what the administration wants as well. We’ve got to end this pandemic and get back to normal in higher education as quickly as possible.”

Kentucky is not alone in enrollment challenges, the CPE release said. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, total fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment, including all sectors both public and private, fell by an average of 4.4% across the county this past fall. Only five states experienced an increase. Kentucky declined 4.1%, compared to the bordering states of Ohio (-3.2%), West Virginia (+1.5%), Virginia (-2.1%), Tennessee (-5.2%), Missouri (-3.3%), Illinois (-6.4%) and Indiana (-9.2%).

CPE said it was already undertaking multiple efforts to support enrollment and college-going throughout the state, including being one of several groups leading the Commonwealth Education Continuum, a new statewide effort to help students transition through the public education system and into college and careers. The 30-member group kicked off its work this year with a focus on improving college-going rates and easing the transition from high school to college.

“Despite the challenges in enrollment, Kentucky has also continued to make progress on key measures in higher education,” the CPE said. “For instance, the six-year graduation rate at four-year public universities reached 56.4% in the 2019-20 academic year, up from 55% the year prior. The average second-year retention rate at public universities also climbed to 80.7% in 2019-20, up from 78.2% from the previous year.

“But declines in enrollment could hamper CPE’s 60x30 goal, an ambitious effort to raise the percentage of working-age Kentuckians with a high-quality postsecondary degree or certificate to 60 percent by the year 2030.”