Why WWU Enrollment Went from the Largest Freshman Class in Decades to the Smallest
By Annaliese Grellmann
COVID-19 has touched every aspect of life, and enrollment at Walla Walla University was no exception. Understandably, students reacted in a broad spectrum of ways. Some students stayed home and attended classes online, others chose to sit out for the year, and some chose other universities, although most students were eager to return to campus as soon as possible.
“WWU went from attracting the largest freshman class in 42 years in the fall of 2019 to enrolling one of the smallest freshman classes in at least a couple of decades in fall 2020,” said Jodi Wagner, WWU’s Vice President for University Relations and Advancement.
Although enrollment at all Seventh-day Adventist universities has been impacted by the pandemic, Wagner observed that WWU seems to have had the “steepest decline.” This is partially because WWU has one of the most residential communities, meaning most students live on campus, in the dorms, or in campus housing. The beauty of this is that WWU has created a close-knit campus, but the downside is that the University has been more impacted than other universities where students could live at home and commute to campus.
As enrollment fell, Wagner said students gave reasons for not attending WWU such as, “I’ll just stay home and take the year off until the pandemic passes,” or, “my parents aren’t comfortable with me going away with everything that’s going on.” Additionally, some students chose other institutions with COVID-19 policies that more closely fit their family’s perspective; either because of fewer safety precautions or more online options because they were not comfortable being in person for classes. Finances and being far away from home are the commonly cited reasons students choose not to attend WWU in normal years and those reasons have stayed at the top of the list throughout the pandemic.
The drop in enrollment has both short-term and long-term consequences on campus. In the short term, budgets have been cut, reducing funding for groups like ASWWU. With less students there are less dues, resulting in a lower budget.
Since there is a smaller freshman class, there will also be a smaller group of students moving through the next four years, which has long-term consequences. This smaller class impacts future enrollment because current students do some of the most successful, unofficial recruiting. By talking to friends and old schoolmates, current students draw new students to the University. Wagner said, “Fewer current students promoting WWU results in less of a boost for attracting new students.”
Wagner said that as the University plans for the future they will have to consider not only COVID-19’s impact on current enrollment but also the nation’s lower birth rate, which is predicted to influence enrollment in the coming decade. With the decline in birth rate, there will be a decline in the number of college-age students at the end of the decade. Wagner said, “Colleges and universities see this coming and are working on becoming more efficient, outcomes-focused, and promotional.”
With “fiercer competition for fewer students,” the marketing and recruiting team has had to evolve, which is something that they’re used to. Since coming to WWU in 2008, Wagner says that each freshman class has “a unique personality, with slight differences in interests and goals.” In the past, students were more likely to want to keep their options open, viewing college as an experience, whereas newer students are more likely to come to college seeing it as a practical path to a specific career. In response, WWU is “utilizing new communications technologies and platforms, but we are also working hard to connect prospective students to faculty, staff, and other students who can help them reach their specific goals,” Wagner said.
The pandemic has also shown how vital in-person recruiting is for enrollment. Recruiting includes social media, phone calls, and letters, but Wagner said that having in-person conversations and physically walking around campus seems to have the greatest impact on prospective students’ interest levels. To rebuild enrollment rates, recruiters “strive to connect with prospective students and their families in ways that represent the friendly, approachable, and connected WWU campus family we cherish,” Wagner said.
- Interview with Jodi Wagner, 5/20/21.