Strong returning student numbers help offset fall enrollment declines across the CSU System

While the COVID-19 pandemic impacted new student enrollment across the CSU System this fall, declines in the number of new freshmen were partially offset by strong returning student enrollment, including a record-setting 5 percentage point increase in the number of students persisting from their freshman to sophomore years at CSU Pueblo.

Remarkably during a pandemic year, CSU Pueblo increased student retention more than at any time in the last decade, and CSU in Fort Collins held steady, retaining 85.3% of its 2019 freshman class, exactly the same percentage as the previous year when COVID-19 was not a factor.

Overall declines

Though overall enrollment turned out better than the double-digit declines anticipated for the three CSU campuses, total numbers were still down from past years: 3.6% at the flagship Fort Collins campus (with a total headcount of 27,835) and 3.3% at the Pueblo campus (with a total headcount of 3,716). The fully online CSU Global operates on a trimester system, different from the two physical campuses, so its total numbers for the term are not yet available.

The campuses reported their enrollment figures today at the October meeting of the CSU System Board of Governors.

“We’re proud of how hard our universities have worked to support students and employees in returning to campus this fall, despite the enormous challenges of reopening during a pandemic,” CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank said. “These numbers reflect that extraordinary effort as well as what we’ve heard anecdotally: A majority of our students want to be back and continuing their progress toward a degree. We want to support that as much as we possibly can.”

Frank also noted the CSU Pueblo retention increases likely reflect some of the System’s recent investments in student services and support in conjunction with the campus’s Vision 2028 strategic plan, led by CSU Pueblo President Timothy Mottet.

Online enrollment increases

Predictably, given international travel restrictions, both the Pueblo and Fort Collins campuses saw declines in new international students. Meanwhile, online enrollment saw a sharp increase, as students who chose not to study on campus this fall sought other ways to continue their degree progress:

  • Preliminary numbers from CSU Global’s fall trimester reflect a nearly sixfold increase in international enrollment in their online programs: from 73 students to 433. (This includes both US citizens living abroad and international students.)
  • CSU Pueblo’s online-only enrollment is up 67% over last year.
  • CSU Online at the Fort Collins campus saw a 59% increase in new undergraduate enrollment.

Impact on low-income students

The CSU System’s Chief Academic Officer Rick Miranda noted a concern felt across the System for how the pandemic is impacting the most vulnerable students, particularly low-income and first-generation students.

“CSU is known for its strong commitment — across all our campuses — to supporting students who are the first in their families to go to college, and we’re concerned to see that first-generation student enrollment at our Fort Collins campus is down this year by nearly twice that of non-first-generation students,” Miranda said. “The impact of the pandemic recession is taking a toll on these students and their families, and we need to continue to focus on how we can support these students in pursuing their academic goals.”

Miranda noted that there is some good news in that CSU’s four-year graduation rate is now at a record high, meaning that students are graduating faster, which saves on tuition costs, reduces student debt loads, and enables them to enter the employment market more quickly.

CSU Fort Collins

CSU Fort Collins welcomed 23,590 undergraduates this fall, a 4.1% decline from last year with most of that decrease in numbers of new freshmen. Graduate student numbers were down slightly (0.7%), with 3,648 graduate students enrolled this fall. The campus saw increases in the number of Native American and Hispanic/Latinx students enrolled, but declines among Black, Asian, and non-minority students. Transfer student enrollment dropped by 20.3%. The ratio of in-state to out-of-state students held constant at 65% in-state to 34% out-of-state.

CSU Pueblo

CSU Pueblo welcomed 3,378 undergraduates this fall, a 5% decline from last year that was offset somewhat by a 13% increase in graduate students (338 graduate students enrolled this fall). Re-enrollment of continuing students at CSU Pueblo was up at every undergraduate level (freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors) for the first time in at least five years. Pueblo also saw a slight increase in numbers of diverse students enrolling. The retention rate for students who entered as transfer students also hit an all-time high (73%) and the highest year-to-year gain ever for the Pueblo campus (9 percentage points over the previous year).

CSU Global

CSU Global only has data available for the first three terms of its fall trimester but experienced a 4.5% increase from last fall through those terms. The University is anticipating an overall increase in non-degree-seeking students and new undergraduates. Preliminary numbers also show a slight increase in number of first-generation and underrepresented minority students.

Chancellor Frank credited strong leadership across the CSU System — President Mottet at Pueblo, President Joyce McConnell in Fort Collins, and President Pamela Toney at CSU Global for their support of students in the face of the pandemic.

“All the CSU campuses have worked tirelessly to be back in operation this fall as safely as possible, continuing to focus on providing an excellent education to our students even while navigating budget reductions and unprecedented health and safety concerns,” Frank said. “That would not have been possible without the strong, collaborative leadership on all our campuses and a commitment to putting the health, education, and well-being of students, faculty, and staff at the forefront.”

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