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College enrollment across St. Louis fails to rebound following steep pandemic decline

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CLAYTON — Next fall, Fontbonne University will join a new athletic conference, the Midwest Sprint Football League.

The small Catholic university that started as a women’s college will field an 11-man sprint football team, made up of players who weigh 178 pounds or less. Adding the sport is part of an effort to boost enrollment at the school, where the freshman class size dropped by 35% this year to 113 students.

Overall enrollment at Fontbonne fell 14% in the past year, to 955 students.

Despite hopes for a rebound in undergraduate enrollment this fall, many colleges are still reporting a decline in students, especially schools serving large populations of low-income students.

Undergraduate enrollment nationwide declined an estimated 3.2% since fall 2020, nearly matching last fall’s drop of 3.5%. If the numbers hold, it will mark the largest two-year decline in at least the past 50 years in the U.S., according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Even before the pandemic, colleges faced a steep challenge in recruitment due to a long-term decline in birth rates. Now, that shrinking pool of potential students is looking to a booming field of entry-level jobs.

“It seems like a lot of young people are going to work instead of college, especially ... students from low-income families who’ve been lured away by this temporary hitch in the labor market where wages are increasing,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center, on a call with reporters last month. “Trying to understand how those students might ever get back into the college path is really important. It’s important to our future workforce.”

Community colleges continue to bear the brunt of the trend with enrollment down 5.6% in 2021, a significant drop but not as steep as the nearly 10% crash from 2019 to 2020, when many classes were held virtually.

St. Louis Community College has slowed its decline, dropping 2% to 14,910 this fall, compared with a 12% drop from 2019 to 2020. But the longer-term slide has been steep — enrollment has fallen by 38% since 2013.

The decline in community college enrollment has contributed to a downward trend at state universities.

Undergraduate enrollment at University of Missouri-St. Louis fell to 6,024 students this fall, down 11% from last year and 35% over the past decade. The University of Missouri-Columbia saw a slight rise in total undergrads, up 1% to 23,533. But first-year enrollment dropped nearly 10% to 4,871 freshmen.

At Harris-Stowe State University, total enrollment fell from 1,400 to 1,210 this year, a 14% drop from fall 2020.

LaTonia Collins Smith, Harris-Stowe’s interim president, said the burden of student debt caused by the pandemic contributed to low enrollment this fall. The historically Black university announced in September it is using federal relief funds to cancel about $330,000 in student debt, an average of about $1,076 per eligible student.

Highly selective private schools experienced a rare upswing, with an average 4.3% growth in undergraduate enrollment nationally. The virtual campus visits and interviews launched during the pandemic might have opened up possibilities to more students from far-flung states, school leaders said.

Washington University rebounded to 7,500 undergraduates this fall after experiencing a slight drop from 2019 to 2020. Undergraduate enrollment at St. Louis University is up nearly 5% to 8,138 students including 1,794 freshmen. That’s an increase of 16% over last year.

“The president and provost made it very clear that the recruitment of this (freshman) class and the retention of our continuing students were key and critical priorities to institutional success,” said Kathleen Davis, SLU’s vice president for enrollment and retention management.

Other local schools bucking the downward trend include Lindenwood University, where the freshman class of 1,183 students marks the largest since 2014.

Southern Illinois University’s campuses in Edwardsville and Carbondale report larger freshman classes and stabilizing enrollment this fall after years of decline. Webster University increased its undergraduate enrollment from 4,209 students in fall of 2019 to 4,593 this year.

One key factor for SLU was a new policy of making the SAT or ACT scores optional on applications, Davis said.

Colleges had been moving away from standardized tests for years over concerns of fairness, plus a growing body of research showing that high school grades are a better indicator of college success. The trend accelerated in the past year, with more than 1,800 colleges now making the tests optional for applicants.

Fontbonne is one of 86 colleges — and the only one in Missouri — that took the next step and eliminated test scores altogether. There is no evidence that dropping the tests can lead to an increase of applicants, said Quinton Clay, Fontbonne’s vice president for enrollment management, marketing and communications.

“Whether we were up in enrollment or down in enrollment, we would have made this decision,” Clay said. “We want to reward students who have worked hard in the classroom for four years.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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