The Humboldt State University library on the first weekend of the Humboldt County shelter in place order due to COVID-19 on March 21. | Photo by Thomas Lal

With Future Unknown Amid Pandemic, HSU Plans for Enrollment Drops and Budget Cuts

HSU, like all colleges, prepares for tough times amid COVID-19 pandemic
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HSU, like all colleges, prepares for tough times and serious measures

Humboldt State University is preparing for an enrollment drop of around 20% for the fall and a budget cut of around $20 million by the 2022 fiscal year, according to a joint press release from HSU and College of the Redwoods.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, HSU projected an enrollment drop for total students of around 14% for the fall and had proposed a budget cut of around $5.4 million by the 2022 fiscal year. 

Given the uncertainty of the next year, HSU is planning for an even larger enrollment decline and budget cut. HSU currently projects new student enrollment to drop by 30%. The specifics of what the budget cuts will mean are still being worked out.

“Many options are being looked at, including combinations of a hiring chill, spending freeze, operational changes, incentives for retirements, travel reductions, and more,” the press release said.

In a Zoom interview, HSU Vice President of Enrollment Management Jason Meriwether said a worst case scenario projection might be only 500 new students and 500 transfer students admitted to HSU in the fall. 

These numbers, to be clear, are projections. No one knows exactly how the next year will play out. Meriwether hoped HSU could keep enrollment and retention as high as possible.

“The sad part is, I don’t know,” Meriwether said. “There’s no benchmark. There’s nothing to project against. We could be doing all this and, you know, 1400 students show up—which would be wonderful.”

HSU is not alone. As noted in Meriwether’s Tuesday enrollment management report to the HSU Senate, colleges everywhere are facing enrollment drops amid the pandemic. The report cited articles from Forbes and the Associated Press along with some early data suggesting one out of every six college-bound students won’t attend college in the fall.

With education expected to shift to a more local focus, Meriwether pointed out that HSU already shifted to local recruitment in the last year with measures like the Humboldt First Scholarship.

Compared to an average of about 32 local students attending HSU per year in the last three years, HSU currently has 208 local students confirmed to attend HSU in the fall with the Humboldt First Scholarship. 

“The good news is we’re not starting local recruitment today because there’s a problem,” Meriwether said. “That’s the best part of all this—is that we already have a really solid foundation that we built in the community over the last eight or nine months.” 

The enrollment management report includes a graph of enrollment scenarios, with red lines for lower enrollment scenarios and a blue line for a growth scenario. Meriwether hoped for HSU to remain close to the blue line.

“Essentially, pray we get as close to the blue line as possible,” he said. 

Meriwether pointed out that, since COVID-19 has hit everywhere, current students might not have much reason to transfer. If classes are still online in the fall at HSU, they will presumably be online everywhere. 

“Let’s say a student says, ‘OK, well, you know, I want to transfer because I didn’t want this experience,’” he said. “OK. Well, the question will be, ‘What school are you going to transfer to?’ Because every school is stuck in this scenario right now.”

Nevertheless, the pandemic will likely temporarily derail HSU’s efforts to improve enrollment. 

“Long term, you know, prior to COVID-19, prior to this hit, we had a plan of getting to an FTE of 7600 students [full-time students] in about four years,” he said. “So now, what if the COVID-19 environment says, well, gosh, it can make us take eight years to get there.”

Meriwether was optimistic that eventually, HSU would get through this.

“I believe that we will bounce back, and I believe we will bounce back strong if the hit is really bad,” he said. “This is a marathon. Enrollment is a marathon.”

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