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University System of Maryland faces its largest enrollment decline of the pandemic

Towson University accounted for a significant portion of this semester’s drop in enrollment, losing just over 1,000 students. (The Daily Record/ Maximilian Franz)

For the third year in a row, total enrollment at University System of Maryland schools slipped this fall semester, declining by 3.2%, or 5,383 students, from last fall. 

A large portion of the losses — 54% — came from the University of Maryland Global Campus, the system’s largest institution, which offers primarily online classes. The statistic is a stark contrast from last fall, in which UMGC was one of the system’s only institutions to increase its enrollment, as primarily online universities nationwide experienced surges in popularity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Towson University also accounted for a significant portion of this semester’s drop in enrollment, losing just over 1,000 students; Coppin State University, Frostburg State University, Salisbury University, the University of Baltimore and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, also saw declines in their student populations. 

For some schools, this represents a significant blow to their enrollment. The size of Frostburg’s student body, for example, declined by 15.6% percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021, while UMB’s dropped by 11.0% and Coppin’s declined by 10.5%. 

Meanwhile, of the four schools who gained students this fall, none saw more than 2.0% growth. Still, two of those universities — the University of Maryland, College Park, and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County — made significant comebacks this year by increasing their student bodies after facing declines in 2020. 

This year is the third in a row that the university system as a whole has seen declines from the previous years’ enrollment, and this years’ declines are the most severe yet; in 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment dropped by just under 4,000 students, the first drop in enrollment for the system since 2013. Last year, the system lost 1,235 students.

Before 2019, the system’s enrollment hadn’t declined since 2013, when it declined by a tenth of a percentage point and fewer than 200 students.

The USM isn’t alone; institutions of higher education across the country, especially public colleges and universities, saw dips in enrollment this semester as they continued to struggle with the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to research by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center that analyzed enrollment numbers from this September. 

Nationwide, public four-year universities saw greater drops in enrollment this year than they did last year, with student bodies at these institutions declining, on average, by 2.3% as compared with declines of only 0.8% in fall 2020.

However, USM fared better than average in terms of freshman enrollment. Public four-year universities in the United States experienced a 3.1% decrease in first-time, first-year students, but across the USM system, first-time, first-year enrollment grew by over 1,000 students. However, this increase was led by four institutions — UMCP, UMBC, UMGC and Towson. Salisbury’s freshman enrollment stayed consisted with that of fall 2020, while the remaining USM universities faced declines.

The university system is considering ways to combat this continued decline, officials said during the USM Board of Regents meeting Friday morning.  

First, the system plans to play into Maryland’s changing demographics by working to appeal to Latino and Hispanic people, which the 2020 census showed make up 12% of the state’s population. There is an especially high number of Hispanic people living in Montgomery County, where one USM campus, the Universities at Shady Grove, is located, Regent Michelle Gourdine noted. 

“We saw a great opportunity to begin to focus on the Latinx population with regards to encouraging and increasing those numbers who pursue higher education, because right now our understanding is that those numbers are low,” she said. As of 2020, 9.7% of the system’s students identified as Hispanic. 

Regent Gary Attman also said the university system needs to focus on attracting students from Maryland, who often end up going to college out of state. 

USM Chancellor Jay Perman took note of the disparity between the growing number of new students at USM institutions and the declining overall enrollment. He suggested that the system must make a greater effort to retain its existing students by ensuring its colleges are as affordable and accessible as possible and by helping students deal with stressors that force them to leave school, such as mental health challenges. 

“In many respects, we’re doing well with first-time students. We get them in, and the challenges of the day keep them from staying … their financial needs and also the things outside of the classroom that make them leave,” he said. “Student retention, particularly as it relates to financial support, student services, becomes a major focus for us.” 

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