Preliminary spring enrollment numbers are in at Lea County’s two colleges and the news is pretty good.
New Mexico Junior College, which resumed classes for the semester on Monday, reported 1,538 full-time students enrolled for spring, said Cathy Mitchell, vice president of student services. University of the Southwest Provost Ryan Tipton reported, with more than a week of registration remaining, 301 undergraduate students enrolled. USW classes resume Tuesday, he added, with the final day to add or drop classes Jan. 23. NMJC’s final registration day is Friday.
“We’re down about 16 students, but we have about 25 students left to register” for the spring term at USW, Tipton said. “We’re going to end up having pretty much the same number of students on campus.
“And for masters and doctoral students, spring term has already started,” Tipton said. “Those numbers are locked in.”
As of Tuesday, USW had 606 students seeking masters degrees, an increase of 35 students, or about 6 percent, from the previous year, he said. The number of doctoral students remained essentially steady — 110 this year compared to 107 last year, or a slight increase of 2.5 percent, Tipton said.
“It’s basically flat enrollment in the doctoral and undergrad programs. The only big change is in the masters program,” he said. “But we really can’t complain a whole lot (because) last year was a record spring (enrollment) for us.”
Mitchell at NMJC said the college’s spring enrollment is down approximately 50 students this year compared to spring 2020. Of those who have registered, about 100 students are brand new to the college experience, she said. The remainder have some higher education experience under their belts.
And, while she didn’t have definite numbers, Mitchell said dual-credit programs between NMJC and county high schools are also down slightly. While she believes COVID-19 has impacted enrollment across the board, Mitchell said dual credit enrollment declines are caused by “a variety of reasons.”
There are also fewer students in the nursing program at NMJC, she said, which enrolls into a new “cohort” or class, only in the fall.
“I know (fall) semester registrations were down some in the nursing program,” Mitchell said.
At least some of the blame for enrollment decreases has to be laid squarely at the feet of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Mitchell and Tipton said. For the spring 2019 semester at NMJC, for example, the college reported more than 2,000 students across all programs, Mitchell said.
And observing COVID-safe practices means fewer spots in some programs as NMJC works to reduce class sizes, she said. That means students who waited to register could find there wasn’t a slot for them in a specific class, which might prompt them to sit out an entire semester to wait for that class to be available.
“Students were filling up classes faster” during pre-semester enrollment, Mitchell said. “If they see a class is not available, they may back off a little bit on registration. If they waited and they see a class is not available, they may decide to wait a semester.”
Tipton agreed the pandemic is taking its toll on colleges, locally and around the country.
“The general sense I get from a lot of our students who are saying they’re going to sit out, take a semester off is I think they’re tired,” he said. “We’re going on two years (of the COVID-19 pandemic) now. When I speak to students, faculty or staff, a lot of people are just really tired.”
A decrease in students from fall term to spring term is typical at USW, usually about 10 percent, Tipton said. This year, he believes that decrease will be closer to the 15 percent mark, reflecting student’s concerns over the pandemic as well as a change in the way students are approaching college in general.
“We’re seeing much greater growth in our online programs,” Tipton said. “We will have a greater number of online students this year than we planned for.”
All the graduate programs, both masters and doctoral, at USW are online, he said. And there’s an online component to undergraduate programs as well, giving students options to better control their own education, Tipton said.
And that means a projected overall 3.5 percent to 4 percent increase in enrollment at USW, he said. But Tipton won’t know for sure until after registration closes.
“We have students coming to campus in the fall and living on campus, but after the fall semester, they’ve gotten a taste for online learning,” he said. “In the spring, they’re transitioning to being online undergrad students. They get a taste of the online environment and realize, ‘I can do this. Online isn’t so scary.’”