Despite Historic Enrollment Decline, Administration Hopeful About UNC’s Future

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This year, UNC saw an increase in the number of applications and first time students

The University of Northern Colorado has been facing a historic decline in enrollment since 2009. During the fall of 2018, UNC saw a spike, hitting its highest recorded enrollment numbers since 2010. At that time, there were just under 13,500 students. Since that spike, the university’s enrollment has continued its steady decline. 

According to fall 2023 census data, UNC now has about 8,420 students enrolled. 

Despite the continuous decline of overall enrollment, Cedric Howard, vice president of enrollment and student affairs, is enthusiastic about the future of the university. 

“We’re encouraged to say that UNC is headed in the right direction,” Howard said. “If you actually look at where things are, our vital signs are very positive.”

This year, UNC showed a 3% growth in new first-time students at the university. Howard says the number of applications at UNC has also gone up by 25%.

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In 2023, UNC had 12,648 applications from first year and transfer students. In comparison, there were only 11,142 applications filed for the fall of 2022. Of the 12,648 students who applied, census data shows that only 1,763 students chose to attend UNC.

Erika Pepmeyer, director of admissions at UNC, says that this year was the first year in many that this year’s incoming class is larger than the year prior. 

According to Pepmeyer, increasing class sizes is an important step in growing enrollment. When smaller classes are admitted, it takes time for those students to graduate and be replaced by larger groups. 

Admitting larger class sizes is not the only step to help boost enrollment. In 2022, UNC introduced the Colorado First-Year Admission Guarantee. All students meeting the guarantee’s requirements are automatically qualified for automatic admission to the university. Among these requirements are being a Colorado high school student and taking subjects like math or english for at least three years. 

The Office of Admissions has also begun to increase the amount of personalization that goes into communicating with potential students. 

“Every student has a unique story, and with an institution our size, we can consider that as to how we approach the conversation,” Pepeyer said. 

Rather than send every potential student the same messages, admissions uses information from students to help provide “the right message to the right student at the right time,” in Pepmeyer’s words.

Last fall,  the university introduced the Strategic Enrollment Management Plan to help improve enrollment numbers. According to Pete Lien, associate vice president of enrollment, this plan helps ensure that there are guidelines, expectations and outcomes that can be measured to determine whether or not they’re working. 

Many of these recent steps have been the result of staff turnover that has led to changes in leadership areas like admissions and enrollment. Howard, Pepmeyer and Lien were all hired at UNC in fall 2021 or later. 

According to Howard, long-term decline the University has been facing may partially be due to the previous lack of a central home for enrollment services. 

Prior to Howard taking over, enrollment services was a decentralized unit run by different parts of the administration. Now, student affairs and enrollment services are housed together. Pepmeyer says the link between the two areas is incredibly positive, and allows her to conduct her work in ways she may not have been able to beforehand.

Despite all this work on admitting new students, it has been said that UNC’s problem is not getting new students enrolled, it’s keeping them enrolled. 

Howard says that perception may have been true in the past, but not any longer. The fall 2023 census showed the highest fall-to-fall retention rate on record for new full-time students. 

When students do choose to leave, Howard chalks it up to three primary reasons: Financial difficulties, struggles with adjusting to college and competing values. 

Allie Mueller, a history major at UNC, is one of the students who falls into the competing values category. After her freshman year, Mueller decided to take a break from school and moved to Austin, Texas, for about a year and a half. 

“I just wasn’t in the right mindset for school,” Mueller said. “I felt like I needed to get out of Colorado for a bit.”

Mueller returned to UNC for the fall of 2023 to finish her degree. Since the start of the semester, she has once again decided that school is just not right for her. 

“There’s just no degree that I’m really interested in, and I don’t really know what I want to do with my life yet.” 

Mueller says that, while UNC does not offer anything she’s particularly interested in, she does not blame the university for her wanting to drop out of school. 

“The classes aren’t bad. It’s just, I’m not interested in this, so it’s really hard to be motivated to go to class, do the work and actually put effort in,” she said.

Though she is not ready to complete her degree now, she is glad she has the option to return at a later time to finish it. While some students have the option to complete their degrees online, Mueller says her history major does not allow for that. 

Howard believes that the ability for students to work on their degrees online and a hybrid style is going to be part of the increase in the universities enrollment numbers. According to him, many students are seeking flexibility and convenience. A student may want to live in the residence hall while also taking most of their classes online. 

In a hybrid format, that’s possible. Beyond that, the ability to attend in hybrid or virtual format is allowing UNC to reach communities that it hasn’t had access to in the past.

According to Pepmeyer, increasing enrollment has the potential to benefit all UNC students.

“Every student’s experience is positively impacted if we can grow enrollment. It creates resources that otherwise don’t exist and it creates a vibrant campus community,” Pepmeyer said. 

Howard says that he expects enrollment to rise in the coming years. As it’s expected to increase, he says he hopes to see the expansion and enhancement of programs and services for students. Food services, mental health services, support for career development and expansion of pre-college outreach programs are just some of the areas he sees potential improvements in once numbers begin to improve. 

While there is still work to be done, Howard says that things are looking up for UNC.

“Have we completely turned it around? No,” Howard said. “But I think we are encouraged when you look at the last two years of the progress that we’ve made, that our future is very bright and we want to make sure we’re all rolling in the right direction, and that right direction is increasing overall enrollment.”

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