Enrollment surges at UA, slips at several other state colleges

Kassandra Salazar (left) speaks Tuesday, April 5, 2016, to a group of 11th-grade students from Heritage High School in Rogers as they walk past Old Main while on a tour of the university campus in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- A freshman class with larger-than-usual numbers of out-of-state students propelled enrollment growth at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

But several other state colleges largely failed to see a bounce back in their student totals -- and some fell further -- after declines last fall.

UA-Fayetteville on Friday reported a preliminary enrollment of 29,068 students, an increase of about 5.5% from a year earlier.

The number of first-time freshmen seeking a degree increased by 28%, rising to 6,064 from 4,726 a year earlier. The data is based on a preliminary count following the 11th day of fall semester classes, which began Aug. 23 at the Fayetteville campus.

"As soon as we opened the doors for campus visits, we had more students want to come than we could admit. There was clearly an eagerness to attend a school that was committed to offering face-to-face classes," Suzanne McCray, UA's vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions, said in an email.

McCray said the freshman total includes 3,422 out-of-state students -- not including international students -- a percentage of roughly 55%.

In recent years, UA-Fayetteville has had roughly 50% of its incoming freshman class come from outside the state's borders.

McCray said the number of freshmen from Arkansas, like the overall enrollment and new freshman totals, also reached a record high this fall, and she noted that, overall, about 53% of all UA students this fall are from inside the state.

A switch for 2020 and 2021 to a "test optional" admissions process likely was something that students were looking for, McCray said, and she also credited the rise in freshman enrollments to "an extensive amount of outreach," including online talks for prospective students and their parents.

McCray said the new freshman class includes 89 students who earned their high school diplomas in 2020 during the first months of the pandemic, then deferred entering college until this fall, which she described as a "small bump" adding to the total.

The number of Black students at UA increased to 1,371, a rise of about 9.6% compared to a year earlier, while the number of Latino students increased to 2,822, a rise of about 11.5% compared to fall 2020.


At other universities in the state, however, college leaders described the uncertainty of the pandemic and financial concerns as influencing students' choice to not attend.

Arkansas State University Chancellor Kelly Damphousse on Friday told trustees that a larger number of students showed interest in attending than actually took classes in the fall.

"We had some significant what we call melt towards the end of the summer, where students who we thought were coming didn't come," Damphousse said, adding that those who failed to enroll were "almost all Arkansas students."

He said many were minority students and eligible for Pell grants, a form of federal financial aid for those with exceptional need.

"We hope we turn those numbers around not for enrollment purposes, but because -- to help us to fulfill our mission, which is to provide a four-year college degree experience to the young people of Arkansas to change the trajectories of their lives," Damphousse said, describing enrollment as "flat."

The university on Thursday announced a preliminary total enrollment of 13,772, down less than 1% from a year earlier.

That total included 894 students enrolled in the Mexico campus established by ASU, university spokesman Bill Smith said Friday. ASU's Campus Queretaro saw enrollment increase by about 21% from a year earlier, according to data provided by Smith.

Not counting those ASU students in Mexico, enrollment declined about 1.7% to 12,878 from 13,106 a year earlier, according to data provided by Smith.

The University of Central Arkansas earlier this month announced a preliminary total enrollment of 10,109 students. This total was about 2.2% lower than a preliminary total announced by the Conway campus a year earlier.

Some other universities saw steeper declines.

Arkansas Tech University, including its campuses in Russellville and Ozark, saw its total enrollment drop by about 10.9% to 9,645, down from 10,829 a year earlier.

The Russellville campus enrollment dropped to 7,930 students from 8,892, a decline of about 10.8%, according to data released by Arkansas Tech this year and in 2020.

"We know that many students who would like to be on campus with us this fall are not for financial reasons and due to health concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic," Robin Bowen, president of the university, said in a statement.

Bowen stated the university is "enacting multiple new strategies to provide current and future students with additional financial support," including "forgiveness of student debts owed to the university."

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock saw its combined undergraduate and graduate enrollment -- not including its law school -- fall by about 7.9% to 6,986 students from 7,587 a year earlier, according to data provided Friday by Cody Decker, the university's vice chancellor for student affairs and chief data officer.

"Our university has a large, non-traditional student population that has been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have focused our efforts on providing more scholarships to students in need as well as the essential wraparound services to ensure success and a solid career path after graduation," Chancellor Christina Drale said in a statement.

The number of UALR students enrolled as first-time-in-college students fell to 520, down from 555, according to Decker and data released by the university a year ago.

This summer, UALR announced a new Trojan Strong scholarship cutting tuition-and-fees in half for many freshmen in the 2021-22 academic year. The university awarded 357 such scholarships, according to a university announcement.

At the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, an enrollment report provided by spokeswoman Rachel Putman on Friday showed undergraduate enrollment declined to 4,230 as of Sept. 8, down roughly 9% from 4,653 students enrolled as of the census date a year earlier. Graduate enrollment had declined to 46 students from 58.