Pandemic cited as reason for Clarion’s enrollment decline

There will be fewer first-year students on the Clarion University campus this year – about 29% fewer.

David Dollins, Clarion’s vice president of enrollment management, recently told the school’s Council of Trustees that there is a decline of nearly 30% in the number of first-year students.

“For the incoming first-year class we are looking at a decline,” Dollins acknowledged. “We have 559 (tuition) deposits as compared to 783 deposits last year at this point in time. That’s down 28.6%.”

Clarion was not the only university in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education to see a decline in students.

“When you look across the entire State System, all of the universities are seeing a decline,” Dollins said. “Some are as low as 2% at Millersville and some as high as 38.6% at East Stroudsburg.

“Overall, the … system is down more than 12%. That is something we are definitely dealing with in the State System.”

Dollins said he believes the decline is the result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is definitely an impact from COVID and the loss of our traditional recruitment strategies, like going to high schools, college fairs, and having campus visitors throughout the fall,” he said.

However, Dollins cited a bright spot.

“Our transfer graduate numbers are looking good compared to last year,” he said. “Transfers are up 18% and new graduate enrollment is up 9% compared to this point in time last year.

“Our library science program has over 112 students who are signed up, and that is really encouraging. With integration, I think that program will add a nice mix to the overall graduate program array once we have that in place.”

Dollins said the drop in incoming students seems to be concentrated on regional public universities, except in some of the fast-growing states such as Texas and Florida. However, Penn State is up 11% in application activities.

Dollins said he did not believe the recently approved integration plan for Clarion, Edinboro, and California “scared any families away.”

The admissions teams from the three schools conducted a three-day road trip, the teams’ first action as integrated universities.

The traveling group included seven admissions counselors from Clarion, eight from Edinboro, and 11 from California.

Each day, the team held a team-building session, toured a campus and reviewed academic program highlights with faculty.

“I think next year we will be back. We will have more opportunity to engage with families,” Dollins said. “We will also be able to partner with the other campuses to make sure we get students into one of our campuses.”

The ‘froshmores’

Clarion will welcome a new class of students this fall: “froshmores.”

“We are welcoming two new classes of students,” Susanne Fenske, vice president for student affairs, told the trustees. “We have affectionately named them ‘froshmores.”’

Fenske said the school is bringing in both sophomores who have been in class for a year, though they have not been a part of the campus community, and freshmen.

“We have special programming for them,” she said.

There are other concerns, Fenske acknowledged, heading into fall.

“Overall we are very mindful of what the post-COVID mindset of the students will be,” she said.

“We are prepared for even more significant mental health challenges as well as expanded drug and alcohol use. They haven’t been able to socialize for a year, and they are going to come and socialize.”

Fenske said the staff is training in prevention methods, which is being done collaboratively with Edinboro and California.

“We will be on the same page right off the bat,” she said.

The pandemic

Concern remains over the COVID-19 virus and the variants.

Clarion Communication Manager Tina Horner said the university cannot mandate student vaccinations, as it is part of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education.

PASSHE, she said, does not have the authority to mandate the shots.

“We have taken a proactive approach with the students and we are working on an extensive program that we will roll out to the students,” Fenske said.

Fees unchanged

The incoming and returning students will not be paying higher fees this year.

“The university established student fees will remain flat at this time,” Fenske told the trustees, who unanimously approved the freeze.

However, Fenske said, the integration plan might impact student fees in the future.