The university’s budget has been hit hard by the decision to transition online after COVID-19 cases climbed past 1,000 during the first few days of the fall semester, and falling enrollment has contributed to JMU’s financial woes.
The previously optimistic freshman enrollment rate decreased from 5,194 to 4,581 as of a enrollment count that occurred Sept. 11, and the total number of undergraduate withdrawals after the start of the semester sat at 738 by Nov. 2 — a loss costing the university $12.6 million in tuition and fees.
Withdrawals and deferrals continue to climb
During the Sept. 18 Board of Visitors meeting, President Alger said the 2020-21 year has been the “most unusual year we can remember" in terms of the university’s enrollment.
Lou Hedrick, associate director of the Office of Institutional Research, said typical enrollment numbers experience a melt in the first three weeks of the semester. The number of discontinued students — a term synonymous with “withdrawal,” which includes withdrawals, deferrals and transfers — between April and Sept. 14 in 2019 was 1,075, compared to the 1,387 students that withdrew in 2020 before the same date. That number, Chris Orem, director of the Office of Institutional Research, said, includes students who discontinued before the start of the fall semester.
From Aug. 24 — the start of the fall semester — to Nov. 2, Orem said, the top three reasons listed for 783 discontinued students’ withdrawals were COVID-19, cited by 311 students; 262 “no-shows” that JMU thought were coming but didn’t show up to classes; and 100 students that deferred enrollment. Orem said that “deferred enrollment” is a reason cited by students that OIR hadn’t seen before this year.
Looking specifically at COVID-19 citations, in October, the university saw a drop in the number of students citing COVID-19 as the reason for withdrawing or deferring, Orem said. The peak was 300 on Oct. 12, and the number decreased to 270 on Oct. 26 as students canceled their decision to withdraw.
Orem said that the university’s policy is to stop tracking enrollment after Sept. 28 in the fall semesters. As of that date, the official count of discontinued students was 400. However, as of Oct. 26, the total discontinued status group from the end of the 2020 spring semester sat at 1,705 students, 251 of which were deferrals, Orem said. The number of students who discontinued and remain discontinued from Aug. 24 totals 738, as of Nov. 2.
Loss of students means JMU loses millions
The $12.6 million loss from the general budget was because of withdrawals and deferrals that cite the coronavirus as their cause, Charles King, senior vice president of administration and finance, said at the Sept. 18 Board of Visitors meeting.
Many returning students never paid their tuition bills which indicated they weren't coming back to JMU, King said. Withdrawals and deferrals means that tuition revenue from 670 students, 3% of the JMU population, is missing from the university’s budget.
JMU also paid out $4.6 million in returned tuition to the 400 students who withdrew or deferred by Sept. 28, King said in an email. Additionally, the university gave back $2.1 million in comprehensive fees.
Students weigh their options
Dean of Admissions Michael Walsh said that after the announcement of the decision for the university to transition to online classes until Oct. 5, he had many conversations with freshman students and their families about whether they’d continue at JMU if classes are online. Many students of what was originally the largest freshman class the university had ever seen decided to defer their admission to the spring or next fall, Walsh said.
Some deferring or withdrawing first-year students unenrolled because of their disappointment that online classes would limit their opportunities to make connections with faculty, Walsh said. Others have family members that are high-risk and vulnerable to the coronavirus, so their decision is “a family consideration.” Walsh said the specific reasons students citing COVID-19 withdrew were “across the spectrum.”
Walsh said he receives weekly lists from the Office of the Registrar that show the students who’ve withdrawn or deferred, and from those lists, he identifies which students are freshmen or transfers. He then reaches out to those students to ask if they plan on returning the upcoming spring semester or fall of the next year.
“The major questions [from students] are revolving around, ‘if I withdraw, how do I do it?’” Walsh said.
Deferring students were concerned about what re-enrolling at JMU would look like in the future. If students return in the spring, their housing is guaranteed, Walsh said. Students who defer to the next academic year and don’t have guaranteed housing, Walsh puts in touch with the Office of Residence Life.
His goal is to provide students with the services they need as they make their decision, Walsh said. He said the university has no precedent to draw guidance from while losing students and facing a pandemic.
“We've never gone through this before,” Walsh said. “So usually, when you ask me what I expect the numbers to be, I have some past history to look at. We have no past history.”
JMU looks cautiously ahead
As the fall semester continues, even departments unaffected by withdrawal rates — like the School of Art, Design and Art History (SADAH) — are worried about what new obstacles the spring semester will bring.
Katherine Schwartz, director of SADAH, said her department has a “pretty high retention rate” with its flexibility in providing in-person, online and hybrid classes. Many of the students in SADAH only wanted online classes, which helped the department accommodate everyone, Schwartz said. A few students “here and there” have decided to take the semester off, Schwartz said, but enrollment “almost feels normal” for SADAH.
“I want to be optimistic, but I don't see the signs yet of them not returning,” Schwartz said. “And so, I guess I don’t really know the budget for spring.”
If the spring semester brought more cuts to SADAH’s budget due to low enrollment, Schwartz said, it’d be difficult to find more expenses to eliminate. But she said she’s expecting students to return in the same high numbers her department experienced in the fall.
“If the kids don't register, of course, that budget would be reduced,” Schwartz said. “And I suppose you can only operate what you can pay for … But our area coordinators are in pretty good communication with the students in our majors, and we are sensing that if we operate, they want to be here.”
Orem said that if the students that cited COVID-19 as their reason for discontinuing at JMU were subtracted from the count, he thinks withdrawal and transfer rates would look similar to the numbers in previous fall semesters.
“Our overall discontinued picture is certainly larger this year than it has been, then it was last year,” Orem said. “I do think that reasons related to [COVID-19] are obviously driving that spike … But certainly, the numbers this semester are higher than they have been in previous falls.”
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