Enrollment falls for first time in six years in first step of planned 20 percent cut

Media Credit: Sophie Moten | Photographer

Undergraduate enrollment fell to about 12,000 students this year – a decrease of about 1.1 percent from the year before – while graduate enrollment fell to about 15,200 students.

Total enrollment fell this year as GW recorded its most diverse student body in nine years.

The number of undergraduates and graduate students enrolled at the University fell for the first time since 2013 this year as the share of white students dropped to its lowest point in at least nine years, according to institutional data. Officials said the decrease in enrollment is the first phase of a planned reduction in enrollment of nearly 20 percent over the next five years.

“We should be thinking carefully about the right size for us,” University President Thomas LeBlanc said at a town hall meeting in September about the planned reduction. “There will be some losses, we will have to make some decisions.”

Decline in the student population
Undergraduate enrollment fell to 12,031 students this year – a decrease of about 1.1 percent from the year before – while graduate enrollment fell to 15,205 students, an annual decrease of about 2.1 percent.

Ed Gillis, who was tapped in August as the interim vice provost for enrollment management, said the drop in undergraduate enrollment is the result of the intentional effort to reduce the size of the student body in accordance with LeBlanc’s plan. But the drop in graduate enrollment – which is not the result of a deliberate push – “is not unusual” during a strong economy and job market, he said.

Gillis added that he expects the number of enrolled credit hours for graduate students, an indicator of how many University resources go into graduate education, to come “very close” to last year.

Bryan Lackaye, an associate dean of graduate program administration at Northeastern University, said to attract graduates to a school, officials should consider if the programs they are offering match and are evolving with the current job market and whether or not the programs can accommodate students with jobs.

“Whether or not students are getting employed is the largest issue for colleges to think about, given the scrutiny that colleges are looked at just because of the simple cost-benefit analysis that a student has to do before enrolling in undergraduate or graduate [programs],” he said.

Nathan Mueller – the principal and managing director at EAB, a company that sells educational technology and services to colleges – said the decision to deliberately drop enrollment could raise the University’s reputation, as demand for an education at GW outpaces supply.

“Over time, not immediately, the anticipated result would be increased demand,” he said in an email. “Demonstrated by an increase in applications for admission as reputation gradually catches up with a strengthened academic profile.”

Gains in student diversity
This year’s student body is the most diverse in recent memory despite declines in Native American enrollment.

The proportion of white students at GW dropped to 46.6 percent this year, the lowest share of the population since at least 2010. The number of Native American students enrolled dropped from 49 students to 14 students – just 0.18 percent of the student population – the lowest since at least 2010, according to the data.

Asian, Hispanic, black and international enrollment all increased by less than one percentage point in 2019, according to the data. Administrators enrolled the most diverse freshman class in at least a decade last year.

Gillis said officials believe enrolling a diverse student body is “critical” to the University’s success and “enhances the education experience for all students.”

“Enrolling a diverse student body ensures that the University is able to meet the changing demographics of the higher education market and promote cross-cultural understanding among our students while better preparing them for an increasingly diverse workforce and world,” he said.

Gillis declined to say whether the decrease in Native American enrollment is significant and what causes may account for this downward trend.

Joe Latimer, the assistant dean for enrollment diversity and outreach at the University of Rochester, said enrolling a diverse student body signals that the school’s financial aid meets demonstrated need.

He added that officials interested in further increasing diversity broadly speaking can increase support for programs for minority students and hire diverse faculty and staff.

“While enrolling diverse students is important, it’s equally important to have committees made up of faculty, staff and students to ensure that everyone feels welcomed,” he said in an email. “Bias incident reporting structures in place allow for the campus community to share episodes of micro-aggression, bias and discrimination and these should be dealt with as they come up.”

Officials rolled out a bias reporting system earlier this year alongside a new online diversity training.

The proportion of male students dropped to 39.3 percent of the student body, the largest gender imbalance since at least 2010, according to institutional data.

John Brooks Slaughter, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, said the decrease in male enrollment is a part of a larger national trend. Women received 57 percent of degrees awarded by U.S. institutions of higher education in the 2016-17 academic year, according to National Center for Education Statistics data.

“In general, throughout this country, there are more women enrolling in higher education than men,” he said. “So I think the issue is not GW, it’s an issue we have to look at from a national perspective.”

Growth in non-degree seeking students
The number of non-degree students enrolled at GW increased by about 19 percent, reaching 578 students, according to enrollment data. Non-degree students pay a $25 application fee to take courses at GW without entering a degree program.

Gillis said non-degree student enrollment varies yearly and may include students looking for opportunities to “get ahead of credit requirements” or professionals who are “seeking development opportunities.”

“Non-degree is a way for universities to support undergraduate and graduate students, including those visiting from other universities and/or satisfying requirements for admission to GW’s programs,” he said.

Mueller, the principal at EAB, said an increase in non-degree students may further enhance the University’s reputation.

“If a university has a world-renowned professional program with paths that are not limited to degree-seeking students, the fact that it is a magnet for these students would not diminish its reputation; it may enhance it,” he said.

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