R.I. colleges bucking national enrollment decline trends

BRYANT UNIVERSITY, pictured, along with Providence College will have record first-year enrollments this fall. / COURTESY BRYANT UNIVERSITY
BRYANT UNIVERSITY, pictured, along with Providence College will have record first-year enrollments this fall. / COURTESY BRYANT UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – Across the country, colleges and universities are seeing fewer and fewer students fill academic halls and dorm rooms over the last few years. But Rhode Island-based colleges, based on early fall enrollment projections, are bucking this trend.

According to a spring 2022 study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, total national enrollment across all sectors has dropped from 17.2 million in the spring of 2020 to 15.9 million last spring. Additionally, the report notes that enrollment has dropped nationally by 20% over the last two years.

However, while final enrollment censuses won’t be available until October, most institutions within the Ocean State are anticipating increased enrollments from the previous academic year, with some colleges seeing record-setting first-year attendance. At worst, some local colleges say they’re projecting to meet enrollment expectations.

Local colleges have also gone full speed on marketing to attract more students seeking degrees and have hope that this year will see normal campus life fully return for the first time since early 2020.

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Providence College and Bryant University will respectively set new school records for new enrollment this fall. PC is slated to have about 1,170 new students attend the Dominican Friars institution starting in September, while Bryant, according to President Ross Gittell, is expecting to have between 925 and 950 new students enroll this fall – about 10% above Bryant’s previous record level.

“That’s very exciting for the institution,” Gittell said, “and it shows high interest and the value of a Bryant education. We’re prepared to welcome that class of 2026 come Sept. 1 when they move in.”

Rhode Island School of Design spokesperson Danielle Mancuso says the arts college is projected to “meet or exceed” last year’s enrollment record of 2,154 undergraduate students and 530 graduate students, however admissions officials could not provide any further details.

Community College of Rhode Island Dean of Enrollment Management Amy Kacerik said fall enrollment is up about 13.5% from last year. Freshman enrollment at Salve Regina University in Newport is expected to rise by 3% over last year, Salve Vice President for Enrollment Management Jim Fowler said. Roger Williams University in Bristol, according to university Vice President for Enrollment Management Amy Tiberio, is about 6% ahead of where the institution was last year with first-year enrollment projections and 36% ahead in transfer student projections. New England Institute of Technology is anticipating a 10% bump in new enrollment when fall classes begin in October, according to Executive Vice President Scott Freund.

Rhode Island College, which has seen enrollment declines in recent years and the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating the problem, is seeing a rebound this fall. RIC is anticipating a 10% rise in new undergraduate students attending the college, RIC Dean of Enrollment Management Jim Tweed said, and “modest” 3% to 5% increases in graduate enrollment.

RHODE ISLAND COLLEGE, which has seen declining enrollments the last few years, is anticipating a 10% rise in new undergraduate students attending the college this fall. / COURTESY RHODE ISLAND COLLEGE
RHODE ISLAND COLLEGE, which has seen declining enrollments the last few years, is anticipating a 10% rise in new undergraduate students attending the college this fall. / COURTESY RHODE ISLAND COLLEGE

The University of Rhode Island’s and Brown University’s respective projected fall enrollments are on par with what they anticipated. URI is slated to have approximately 3,800 new students, which includes about 500 transfers, while Brown is expected to welcome 1,700 first-year students to the Ivy League institution this fall. Brown spokesperson Brian Clark said the university typically has seen in recent years between 1,650 and 1,750 new students attend Brown.

Johnson & Wales University, which had 4,290 full-time undergraduate students enrolled last year, is expecting a decline in new students this year, although did not clarify how much of an enrollment drop it is expecting nor note what impacts JWU will face because of fewer students enrolling. University spokesperson Rachel Nunes said the lower enrollment results reflected a myriad of changes, including new admission standards, and JWU being hampered by COVID-19-related impacts, such as not visiting high schools in 2020 and not hosting campus visitors for most of 2021. However, Nunes said inquiries to JWU about the fall 2023 semester are “running at pre-pandemic levels.”

In addition to introducing this fall various new educational programming at their respective institutions, college officials also said institutions have expanded its marketing strategies and partnerships to attract more students. URI Associate Vice President of Enrollment Management Dean Libutti said the university did “hundreds” of programs with students meeting admissions and financial aid staff online for students to learn about URI via online chats and discussions, especially during the pandemic.

Libutti also said URI also created a 30-minute online “TV show” that has 10 three-minute segments highlighting the university.

“I’d like to think that we, rather than become the victim of the times, really tried to be entrepreneurial,” he said.

Kacerik said CCRI has customized its advertising by sending high school students messages on multiple social media platforms, such as TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, while adult learners see ads on Facebook, and regular broadcast radio and television. CCRI also developed ad campaigns in both English and Spanish as well.

Tweed said he restructured RIC’s undergraduate admissions office, which was a singular office, and made it two departments. One department, he said, focuses on outreach and recruitment, and the other a “perspective student center” that works on creating campus events and visits. RIC also adds a personal touch in its outreach by making direct calls to students congratulating them on their admission, Tweed said, and the college also added five admissions counselors to its staff to help recruit and build relationships with prospective students.

PC President The Rev. Kenneth R. Sicard previously told Providence Business News that the men’s basketball team’s success last year, plus new educational programming – such as PC’s planned School of Nursing and Health Sciences – contributed to prospective students choosing PC to continue their education. Freund said New England Tech’s new College of Health Sciences, which launched last fall, has helped with its enrollment – about 600 health students are currently enrolled for summer term – and will help for the future.

Local colleges also began last spring to look past the pandemic by easing some on-campus mandates, such as wearing masks indoors, signaling a return to normal campus life. College officials now hope that this past spring is the dawn of a new – and somewhat traditional – day on campus.

“We’ve learned so much over the last couple of years,” Tiberio said. “[Easing COVID-19 policies] will continue to open things up and create an atmosphere that feels more normal. We’ve been evolving in that direction, and this fall we’ll feel like we’re making further strides.”

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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