California State University applications rebound after COVID

Applications and enrollment in the California State University system have leveled after sharp declines during the coronavirus pandemic.

Applications held steady this year as about 828,000 undergraduate students applied for the fall 2023 term. That total is comprised of about 630,000 first-time students and about 200,000 transfer students.

California State University officials said overall, freshman enrollment this year is at pre-pandemic levels, and undergraduate transfer student enrollment only slightly declined. Last fall, 831,000 undergraduates applied for admissions, an increase from 794,000 in 2021.

Statewide, 458,000 students were enrolled across 23 campuses – a drop from 477,000 students last fall.

Some campuses are still working through more dramatic declines, like California State University Chico.

That sharp decline in enrollment at CSU Chico began in 2017 and worsened as wildfires took a toll on Butte County.

While their student headcount dropped 10% in the last year, their new first-year enrollment was up 4.5%. And as their Dec. 15 application deadline neared, applications from first-time college students were up 16% and transfer student applications were up 25%. The university serves about 13,800 students today.

The Butte County university’s enrollment numbers were teetering between 16,000 and 17,000 students prior to the wildfires. By Spring 2020, at the start of the pandemic, 16,100 students were enrolled.

University officials said declining enrollment at local community colleges such as Butte College and Los Rios Community Colleges are large contributing factors since they often serve as feeder schools for local universities.

Growth at Humboldt, Sac State

Other campuses fared better during the pandemic.

California put $400 million into re-branding Humboldt State University following a steep enrollment decline of 31% between 2017 and 2021. The north coast campus is now Cal Poly Humboldt, and is designed to make the campus more attractive, with new laboratories and additional science programs.

Fall 2022 enrollment at the campus stood at 5,858 students. First-time undergraduate applicants climbed 86% in the last year, according to Humboldt officials.

“These are impressive numbers compared to recent years,” Peggy Metzger, executive director of Enrollment Management stated in a press release. “Humboldt’s polytechnic designation and the new academic programs that are launching next fall are definitely a draw for prospective students and their families this year. We’re excited to welcome these new students to Cal Poly Humboldt.”

Sacramento State only also saw a slight dip in enrollment. More than 31,000 students are enrolled this semester, a 2% decline from the year before, but still up from five years ago.

“The pandemic was so disruptive to life as we know it,” CSU Chico’s Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management Jerry Ross said.

Ed Mills, VP for Student Affairs and Chief Enrollment Officer at Sacramento State, said the dip in numbers this year was due in-part to a drop in transfer students.

Universities to still offer online classes

University classes were not always entirely in-person. Before the pandemic, CSU Chico, for example, offered 8% of its classes online.

But with COVID-19 protocols no longer implemented on campuses, CSU Chico is now offering 20% of its classes online.

Sacramento State is offering 18% online, and 82% are in person.

CSU officials said some students chose to continue remote studies. The university system responded to those needs, expanding internet coverage throughout campus and into parking lots, offering other campus resources virtually such as reserving library resources, paying for books and access to much-needed mental health counseling over Zoom post-pandemic.

“What we have settled into is a new normal,” Ross of CSU Chico said. “Some students really appreciate the flexibility of having one or two classes online to supplement the in-person course load. With these online classes, students can have a work schedule around that.”

Departments at the university are working on fall 2023 schedule, and while they will gradually bring more classes to campus, Ross said he doesn’t think the university will return to the percentage they were before COVID-19.

“Students like the flexibility,” he said. “So it’s hard to say.”

How California population trends affect schools

Schools and colleges are preparing for fewer younger people in the future due to several factors.

The Great Recession of 2008 preceded declining birth rates. During that tumultuous time, many people decided to hold off on having children.

“That means there are fewer college aged individuals,” Ross said.

And while many parents expect their children to attend college, some people have become more skeptical of the value of a college education, and find an increasing number of financial barriers as the cost of education continues to rise.

International student enrollment has also declined, given the political dynamic in recent years. Visa backlogs and the pandemic were just two reasons why universities found international recruitment challenging.

But those factors also motivate officials.

Universities have become more creative and innovative in ways they recruit high school graduates to their campuses.

While application numbers are steady this year, CSU campuses extended their application deadlines and are reaching out to more than 200,000 applicants who began their applications but did not complete them.

This story was originally published December 26, 2022 5:30 AM.

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.