FSU total undergraduate enrollment declines 10% due to COVID-19

Total undergraduate enrollment for the fall 2020 semester is 3,467, down 10.3% since Fall 2019, when 3,864 students were enrolled, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

Of Framingham State’s sister institutions, only Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts lost a larger percentage of enrolled students. Its total undergraduate enrollment has declined by approximately 20%, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

FSU Fall 2020 first-time freshman enrollment has declined by 20.9% from the fall 2019 semester. While 776 first-time freshman students matriculated at FSU for the fall 2019 semester, only 614 students enrolled for the fall 2020 semester, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education.

The decline in this semester’s enrollment is largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Jeremy Spencer, dean of enrollment management. 

“We had specific strategies that we were employing to be able to get us to where we wanted to go, and everything was on target,” Spencer said. 

A set of targets and assumptions are calculated concerning the enrollment of first-time freshman and transfer students for the benefit of the Budget Planning Committee each semester, according to Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development.

Predictions are calculated for the number of applications the University will receive, how many will be accepted, the number of students who will submit deposits, and the number of students who will actually be enrolled for that semester, according to Holloway.

The pre-COVID-19 Fall 2020 assumptions and targets for first-time freshmen were 4,444 acceptances, 889 deposits, and an end enrollment of 800 students. Assumptions and targets for transfer students were 630 acceptances, 441 deposits, and an end enrollment of 334, according to Spencer. 

After accounting for everything that was known about COVID-19 in March 2020, new targets were established for the fall 2020 semester enrollment, according to Spencer. 

The new targets for first-time freshmen were 731 deposits and 643 enrolled, and 318 deposits and 248 enrolled transfer students, according to Spencer. 

According to the data Holloway presented at the Nov. 18 Board of Trustees meeting, the first-time freshman enrollment target was missed – 614 students were enrolled. The transfer student enrollment was exceeded – 276 students were enrolled.

The University received 5,708 applications for first-time freshmen, down approximately 4.4%, or 252 applications, compared to the fall 2019 semester, according to Holloway’s data.

The percentage of first-time freshmen accepted increased to 80.19% from the Fall 2019 percentage of 74.24%, according to the data provided by Holloway. 

Of the 767 first-time freshmen who submitted deposits, only 614 enrolled for the fall 2020 semester. This means the percentage of students who submitted deposits, but did not end up attending, almost doubled, with this semester’s “melt” being 19.95% compared to the Fall 2019 “melt” of 11.29%, according to Holloway’s data.

According to Spencer, melt is the “differential between those people who said that they’re going to come with a deposit, and those who actually ended up showing up on the first day of class.”

The University received 723 transfer student applications, down approximately 30%, or 219 applications, compared to the fall 2019 semester, according to the data provided by Holloway. 

The percentage of transfer students accepted increased to 68.46% from the Fall 2019 percentage of 66.67%, according to Holloway’s data.

Of the 350 transfer students who submitted deposits, only 276 enrolled for the fall 2020 semester. This means there was a “melt” of 21.14% – up almost 5 percentage points from the fall 2019 semester “melt” of 16.3%, according to the data provided by Holloway.

Holloway said when she presents enrollment data, she includes the models from 2008 to the present year to demonstrate why the model has had to change throughout the years. She highlighted the data from 2008 when the University accepted approximately 56% of its applicants and received 723 deposits, and in 2020, even with an approximately 80% acceptance rate, the University only received 767 deposits.

In an interview, Spencer said although “the number of applications was down compared to last year, accepts were actually up.

“It’s really important to highlight the profile of those accepts for being relatively the same,” he added. “It wasn’t a drop in profile. It was because we did a better job at completing those [acceptances]. So, everything was looking good on the accepts.”

He said when COVID-19 hit, the number of deposits declined as well as the number of students who actually enrolled.

“We were on track, and then everything went off the rails,” Spencer added.

Holloway agreed with Spencer that COVID-19 is the main reason enrollment numbers are down. 

“It’s COVID, and the uncertainty that COVID is,” she said. 

Holloway added particularly in the Northeast, the number of high school students going to college this year has declined. 

She said another reason for the enrollment decline is because some of the community colleges are struggling this year, which cuts down on the number of possible transfer students. 

Holloway said the University is now in competition with colleges that are struggling to find students that it hadn’t been in competition with in previous years, such as the UMass system.

Spencer said the UMass schools are “doctoral institutions” that tend to recruit internationally and out-of-state. 

With the pandemic, recruiting these types of students became more difficult, “so therefore, what they did is they went to the students in their backyards, those who traditionally enrolled at the state universities,” he said.

“Those particular in-state students who traditionally would enroll in a state university, but now given the option to go to UMass, may in fact choose UMass over the state university,” Spencer added.

Holloway said another reason enrollment numbers are down is because “we have an increase in the number of students who have more financial need, who are interested in going to college.”

She added the difficulty of that is there is a limited amount of financial aid that the University can provide and “more people need or have more need.”

During the Nov. 18 Board of Trustees meeting, Holloway said one of the reasons FSU’s enrollment is lower than that of its sister institutions is because of issues related to ZIP code and income.

She said MetroWest is one of the highest income and highest educated areas surrounding Framingham. She added her office will look into the new census data to see how these factors may be affecting recruitment. 

Holloway said two highly educated parents will most likely want their child to go to a “perceived” higher-ranked or private university. 

“So, we are not just competing against our sister institutions for that, but also competing against private institutions,” Holloway added. 

She said this is not an excuse, and asked if that is the case, how does the University market itself toward that particular population?

Holloway said once her staff receives the National Student Clearinghouse data, they will be able to see what other schools the accepted students had applied to, which school they chose, whether that school was public or private, and if there is a school in particular the University is losing students to. 

In a Dec. 8 email, Ellen Zimmerman said, “Over the previous four years, first-time first-year retention rates ranged from 70% – 76%, with an average of 73.5%. So, we would have liked it to be at 74% or higher. However, this year, it was 69%.”

Zimmerman added, “We attribute a significant part of this decline to the impact of COVID-19.”

In a Nov. 4 interview, Holloway said another issue impacting overall enrollment is retention. 

People are “thinking about coming back or not thinking about coming back because their situations have changed,” she said. “They don’t have the money they thought they had.

“We’re still really struggling trying to help students,” Holloway said.

As an example, she said through the Cares Act, the federal government has provided money that the Financial Aid Office has been struggling to give to students because they are having trouble getting the students to respond and fill out the form. 

Holloway added calls to the office of Kay Kastner, coordinator of student support initiatives, have gone down this semester. 

She said she still has laptops available in her loaner laptop program.

According to Holloway, she started with 70 laptops at the beginning of the semester. As of Dec. 8, seven semi-new and 18 refurbished laptops remain as well as five Apple MacBooks, but only for specific courses.

“We should not have as many left by this time of the semester,” Holloway said. “I have more money in my student support fund than I should have. 

“I know students are struggling or having emergencies, and we’re just not hearing from them,” she added.

“I chair the [Student Programs and Support] continuity team,” she said. “And that’s something we’ve been struggling the most with – we know that there are students out there that need help. 

“How do we get to them when their screen is off, their video’s off, and they’re not responding?” Holloway asked. “And they may have very good luck. I’m not judging anybody – people have a lot going on – but it is this internal struggle. We want to help them to be able to stay in school.”

In a Dec. 8 email, Glenn Cochran, associate dean of students and student life, said, “Our official opening fall occupancy was 726, or about 37% of our capacity, and we currently are at 707.”

He said during regular academic years, it is common for occupancy to decrease throughout the course of the semester.

Cochran added, “As of early October, colleagues at Massachusetts state institutions were reporting occupancy ranging from 9% to 60% of capacity.

“It is important to remember that occupancy is a snapshot in time – so we note an opening occupancy, but it is a number that changes from day to day,” he said. “In addition, some institutions opened late or went to remote classes at differing points in time.”

Holloway said she believes FSU ranked lower in residence hall occupancy than some of its sister institutions partially because some universities require all students who are taking in-person classes to live on campus. 

She said another reason is the University let students out of their housing agreements later than some sister institutions. 

She added this was because the University did not want to put the financial burden on its students when there were still some unknowns such as how many classes were in person, whether fall sports would take place, and whether the University was going to be able to open depending on what the state and the city were doing.

Holloway said FSU’s low occupancy rate was caused by a “myriad” of reasons and she “hesitates” attributing it to just one.

For the spring semester enrollment, the focus will be on the students who chose to defer their acceptance from the fall 2020 semester to either the spring 2021 semester or the fall 2021 semester, according to Spencer. 

Deanna Girard, a Fall 2020 accepted student, said she chose to defer her acceptance until the fall 2021 semester. 

“I was nervous about being on campus with COVID and everything because I just didn’t want to bring it home to my family if I went home on weekends,” Girard said.

She said she originally planned to only defer to the spring 2021 semester, but decided to wait until fall so she could work full time and save up money.

Spencer said in previous years, the University found it difficult to recruit for the spring semesters, and usually focused on the fall.

“However, last year, the National Association for College Admissions Counseling, which is the ethical professional organization that oversees college admissions, made the decision that colleges and universities could do two things: they could recruit beyond the May 1 deadline and they could continue to recruit after students enroll,” he said.

Spencer added as in the case at other universities, Framingham State has started an initiative to reach out to students who were accepted, but chose to attend elsewhere. 

He said through the initiative, they send their “well wishes” and let the students know the University is “transfer-friendly.”

Spencer said in terms of the fall, “We become very aggressive in what’s called the ‘students search arena.’

“Historically, we would purchase about 20,000 SAT names and communicate to them their senior year,” Spencer added. 

“Now, we are communicating to about 66,000 high school seniors, in addition to 33,000 high school juniors in a multi-tiered strategy where we’re hitting them with postcards and emails and digital advertisements – all of which to be able to get them engaged,” he said. 

These engagements will then encourage the potential students to attend the University’s various virtual events such as informational sessions and virtual tours, as well as some limited in-person tours of the campus, according to Spencer. 

He said the University is partnered with an outside vendor, EAB, that can predict whether high school students are “most likely,” “likely,” or “less likely” to apply to FSU or are “neutral.”

Spencer said the strategy is to send physical mail to those who are most likely and likely to apply as well as those in the University’s customer relationship management system (CRM).

The CRM system, Slate, is comprised of prospective students who have interacted with the University through contacting or opening an email, he said. 

All high school students receive emails regardless of their likelihood to apply to FSU, he added.

Spencer added the goal is to get those prospective students engaged with the University throughout the fall. 

“Each and every one of the admissions counselors is able to pull this from their academic territories, and then from those territories, what they are able to do is have really targeted outreach,” he said. 

Holloway said the problem is other universities are using these same strategies, and those universities may have more robust resources while FSU is “on a budget” and has fewer Admissions employees.

Spencer said the traditional ways of meeting with prospective students – college fairs, group informational sessions, and tours – have become “obsolete.” 

To combat this, more ways of getting students engaged digitally and virtually have been put into place. The Admissions website was redesigned and the virtual tour was enhanced with more tour stops and interactive hotspots, including videos and 360-degree images, according to Spencer.

Holloway said the difficulty in this “virtual reality” is that a majority of prospective students are “Zoomed out.

“They’re tired of looking at screens,” she added. “If I have been looking at a screen all day, do I want to go to something in the evening where I’m looking at a screen again? And I don’t even know these people, so why do I want to talk to them?”

Shayna Eddy, associate dean of admissions and director of undergraduate admissions, said her staff is conducting more outreach with their counselors.

“We do have staff rotating in the Welcome Center,” Eddy said. “We do have some very limited engagement for prospective students to come to campus.”

She said, “We’re usually out on the road and recruiting. Unfortunately, that has come to a halt.”

Eddy added the admissions staff is still connecting with high schools and their students virtually.

She said a lot of the unknowns around why enrollment is down will be answered once her office receives the National Student Clearinghouse data. 

Averil Capers, director of marketing, said, “Basically, our marketing strategy is to build brand awareness, and we’re using a multi-channel approach for that.

“We’re also working closely with Admissions, so the timing of the marketing that we do to build brand awareness works in conjunction with what they’re doing from the recruitment end – sending out printed materials or emails,” Capers added. “So, we match our plans together.”

She said not only are they targeting high school students, but their families as well. 

“We’re targeting both because we realize that parents are involved – or families are involved – with the decision-making process as well,” she added. “So, we want them to know that Framingham State is here, and what we’re about, and what we have to offer.”

Capers said in terms of COVID-19, she is “lucky” a lot of her marketing work is already done digitally whereas, in Admissions, in-person interactions make up the majority of their recruitment work. 

She said one of the new marketing strategies her office is undertaking is putting together the campus virtual tour to have it “closely mirror an experience that a student would have if they came on campus.”

She added this will still be a valuable tool following the pandemic for any prospective students who can’t make it to campus. 

Another addition to the Framingham State website is “specialized landing pages,” she said. Instead of searching through the website for the information they need, prospective students will be taken to easy-to-navigate pages with all the information they need.

The website’s COVID-19 alerts will also keep prospective students up to date about how the University is handling the pandemic, according to Capers.

Another marketing strategy performed through the website is the featured student photos and testimonials for prospective students to hear current students’ stories, she said.

“We are doing streaming audio this year instead of terrestrial radio,” Capers said.

She added there is less travel this year such as going back and forth to school, so advertising on the radio is less likely to reach its target audience. Instead, advertising will be on streaming applications – Spotify, for the students, and Pandora, for the parents. 

Capers said the University is also no longer advertising through cinema ads, at events such as sports games, and posters targeting community college students. 

She said one of the new social media platforms the University will be advertising on is TikTok. “I’m excited about that because that’s a little different,” she added.

Capers said one of the benefits of advertising on TikTok is the ability to target a larger audience such as Massachusetts as a whole. 

Other media platforms the University advertises on are Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Google Display, YouTube, and broadcast and cable television, according to Capers.

“We always look at the campaigns that we’re running and see how they’re doing, and where people are clicking on them, and then making adjustments as we go along,” she said.

Zoe Ryan Williams, a freshman political science major, said, “I chose FSU because I liked the small community and campus – also, the racial diversity of the campus.

“I really value diversity within a community and the feeling of belonging,” Williams said. “I went to a diverse high school, and I wanted to continue that experience in college.”

Hannah Polansky, a junior English major, said, “I chose to go to FSU because they offered me the most financial aid, and it was located close to the city without the city traffic.”

Ryan Mikelis, a freshman history major and commuter student, said he chose FSU for multiple reasons.

“One reason is because it has a really good teaching program, and teaching is a career that I believe I want to pursue after college,” he said. “I also chose FSU because I love everything about the campus, and it’s not too far from my home.”

Chelsea Getchell, a junior English and secondary education major, said, “FSU was the most affordable option and gave me the most scholarship opportunities. 

“It also had the secondary education major, which I didn’t find in a lot of other schools I was interested in,” Getchell added. “I wanted to be a part of the Honors Program as well as the field hockey team, and FSU allowed me to do all of these things.”

According to Spencer, part of the enrollment management strategic plan is to “increase the transparency of enrollment.” 

A future function will be added to the MyFramingham portal for the campus to have access to enrollment management reports, he said. 

“We have a tremendous group of committed individuals, while small, but committed that are really looking at this, and really pushing hard to make enrollment transparent across the University,” Spencer added.