OGDEN — As national college enrollment drops in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Weber State University saw a slight decrease in its fall registration numbers.
Data from the Utah System of Higher Education on this semester’s enrollment numbers published on Wednesday showed that of Utah’s eight public higher education institutions, four saw a decrease in students this fall. Weber State had the smallest loss, with the school seeing a 0.2% reduction in enrollment, which amounts to 48 students.
“I think the decrease itself was not that significant,” said Weber State Provost Ravi Krovi. “I would consider that pretty much flat enrollment compared to last year.”
In 2019, Weber State had a record number of students enroll for fall classes — a 5% increase from 2018. The 0.2% decrease, however, bucks the trend of a 2.5% decrease in undergraduate enrollment nationwide, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Although other institutions saw increases as high as 12.1% at Southern Utah University and reductions as low 7.5% at Salt Lake Community College, Weber State lands in the middle and is in line with total state numbers. USHE feels optimistic that enrollment in Utah, in general, has stayed constant.
“I think we’re pretty pleased with the numbers, especially given the large drops around the nation,” said Trisha Dugovic, a spokesperson for USHE. “Staying pretty steady this year is a positive sign that students want to go to college and learn.”
USHE does have one cause for alarm, though. Of the four schools that saw drops in enrollment, three — Salt Lake Community College, Utah Valley University and Weber State — have the most affordable tuition in Northern Utah and serve high numbers of nontraditional students.
The drop at these schools may indicate that many of these students, whether due to the loss of a job or an inability to pay for child care, did not have the money or resources to continue with their education. According to Weber State’s Nontraditional Student Center, approximately 56% of the university’s students are nontraditional.
“We are concerned that COVID has hit different populations of students differently,” said USHE Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme. “The risk to these institutions is a risk to society. What we don’t want is to have an opportunity gap get wider and wider.”
Woolstenhulme said USHE is working with universities to find solutions to barriers presented to students by the pandemic. One action taken by USHE, he noted, was a cut in student fees at institutions throughout the state.
This semester, Weber State cut its student fees by 15%, which is about $75 for a full-time student. Krovi said the university has taken other measures to lighten not only the financial burden on students, but also the emotional toll of the pandemic.
The university allocated approximately $265,000 of its CARES Act funding to purchasing hot spots and laptops that students can check out from the school’s Stewart Library to complete online coursework.
Currently, 59% of Weber State’s classes are completely online, compared to 20% of courses at the school that were offered online last year.
As the university has moved to primarily a virtual format, Krovi said faculty at Weber State have made a concerted effort to stay engaged with students and aware of their needs.
In 2017, Weber State began using a program called Starfish, which allows faculty and staff to raise “flags,” or concerns, about a student’s academic performance or welfare. These flags help faculty work with struggling students and give advisors and other campus programs the opportunity to provide students with the resources they need.
According to data the school collected after the first three years of the program, students who are flagged continue with their education at a higher rate than students at the school overall. So the program, if used, keeps students moving toward graduation.
“This semester, our faculty have raised a record number of flags,” Krovi said. “So our faculty have been much more tuned to what students are facing.”
Starfish may have played a role in the schools retention rate, which in contrast to its enrollment increased by 1.3%. Krovi said it is the highest increase the school has seen in 15 years.
The school has also moved tutoring and counseling services online to increase safety and accessibility to students.
Weber State announced in September that it plans to maintain similar operations in the spring, with students having access to in-person and online options for classes and services.