The University of Wyoming is expecting to have about 1,900 fewer students enroll this fall than were enrolled at the university in fall 2019.
UW had 6,212 undergraduates enroll for fall 2019 and, according to preliminary headcounts, that number is scheduled to drop 18.8% this fall.
The drop in number of graduate students will be even more drastic: With just 1,170 graduate and professional students scheduled to enroll, UW’s graduate student count is set for a 38.9% decline.
“We called everyone who did not register that we were expecting to be back,” UW Vice President for Finance and Administration Neil Theobald told a legislative task force this week.
After serving as acting president for a year, Theobald has now returned to his former position of vice president.
Theobald said that the economic ramifications of COVID-19 and a depressed energy sector are the overwhelming factors for students choosing not to return to UW.
“A lot of them are in the energy industry in the western and northern parts of the state, and either their parents or themselves are without a job. It’s an inability to pay with at least those 1,900,” Theobald said. “Even those who are coming back are coming back for fewer credits. The problem with that is that it will take them longer to graduate.”
To get students to graduate faster, Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said this would be an ideal time to have full-time students pay a flat rate, regardless of the number of credits they take.
Theobald said that’s an idea likely to be addressed with the trustees in the near future.
“That is very much on the table — having a flat rate from 12 to 18 credits,” he said. “The flat fee is a good incentive to get students to take as many credits as possible and graduate from the university as soon as possible.”
President Ed Seidel, who’s taken the helm at UW this month, noted that COVID-19’s impacts on other areas of the economy is also likely to hurt students’ ability to pay for school.
“Unemployment is up and students are typically in service industries,” he said. “When I was a student, I worked at three Pizza Huts to pay my way through, and those jobs are not available to them right now.”
The decline in enrollment means a loss of more than $10 million in tuition revenue for UW.
The discussion of UW’s enrollment came Thursday during a meeting of the Wyoming’s Tomorrow task force, an education-focused committee that was the brainchild of Speaker of the House Steve Harshman, R-Casper.
Four of the task force’s 10 members are from Albany County, including Rothfuss and Rep. Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie. Albany County School District No. 1 Superintendent Jubal Yennie and the director of UW’s Trustees Education Initiative, Curtis Biggs, also sit on the committee.
The same day as the task force’s first meeting of the year, Gov. Mark Gordon announced he’s allocated $26 million in CARES Act funding for UW to re-open this fall.
That sum was included in $210 million that Gordon announced had been distributed across the state Thursday.
Not included in that $26 million was $10 million that UW has requested for financial aid. UW continues to lobby for those funds, Theobald said.
During Thursday’s meeting, UW officials and legislators alike expressed concern that students’ decision not to return to school this fall will have long-term negative effects for both those individuals’ attainment and Wyoming’s economy.
“When students step away from university and college, life happens and a lot of things can occur that will prevent them from finishing their degree,” Theobald said. “If we lose this generation of students, it is going to damage the state of Wyoming.”
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Lusk, suggested that Wyoming’s Tomorrow task force should consider asking the Legislature, in an upcoming special session, to use CARES Act funding to pay for students’ tuition for the 2020-2021 school year.
Harshman threw his support behind the idea.
“I think it would be a great investment,” he said. “The last thing we want to do is lose a generation of our citizens.”
Seidel stressed that investing in higher education in times of economic uncertainty is key to avoiding decades-long consequences.
He was working at the National Science Foundation during the 2007-08 recession when NSF invested $3 billion in support research in higher education.
“We preferentially put that into students ... to stay in academia and not have to drop out because of the lack of funds for them,” he said. “We saved an entire generations of scientists — I mean thousands … and I see a similar opportunity here.”
The success of the fall semester, Theobald said, will be to limit the spread of the virus.
UW has purchased 20,000 saliva tests, which will be mailed to all students, employees and staff.
“You are required to have a negative test before you can return to campus,” he said.
One-third of classes in the fall will be hosted online.
A primary quarantine site with 23 beds will be set up at the armory. Two other quarantine sites have also been established.