Home » Education: Strategies for Success

Education: Strategies for Success

Why enrollment at Kentucky colleges and universities is on the rise—even as U.S. enrollment figures decline

By Shannon Clinton

Pharmacy students on February 7, 2020. Photo by Mark Cornelison | UKphoto

While college enrollment nationwide has been declining over the past few years, many Kentucky universities are faring much better, using grants, financial aid programs and other innovative ideas to help more students enroll.

By the numbers, University of the Cumberlands is winning in the college enrollment game.

The total fall enrollment for the private, four-year Christian university in Williamsburg leapt 92% between 2017 and 2021—jumping from 10,097 to 19,411—and is on track to continue that trend.

Chancellor Jerry Jackson said the university has consistently been recognized by the Chronicle of Higher Education as being among the fastest growing in the commonwealth.

The undergraduate residential population on campus was 1,350 for fall 2018. By fall 2022, that number had climbed 51% to 2,047. As of January 2023, it was already trending another 13% ahead of last year.

Affordability is a factor, particularly in the current inflationary economy. The university has been listed as one of the three most affordable universities statewide, said Vice President of Communications and Marketing Andrew Powell. Undergraduate on-campus tuition is $9,875, with no added fees and free textbooks.

Since 2018, Jackson said, administrators have focused on addressing needs for affordability and transparency in cost and simply offering what students are interested in.

The reason for growing enrollment, he said, is “very basic.”

“We’re very innovative in our approach” to gauging what students want to study and developing programs to make scholars career ready.

Of course, it’s not just getting seats filled in classrooms. Students ideally must also make it to the finish line: graduation.

A look at the numbers
In fall 2021, U.S. colleges and universities experienced a nearly 500,000 drop in undergraduate students, with community college enrollment down 19% between fall 2019 and fall 2022, according to a report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC).

Notably, Kentucky tied with Utah for second nationwide in a more recent NSCRC study of six-year college graduation rates in the fall 2016-June 2022 student cohort. Kentucky and Utah increased their college graduation rates by 1.1 percentage points, bested only by Rhode Island at 2.1%. Meanwhile, Kentucky’s community college completion rate increased by 3 percentage points, second only to South Dakota’s 4.1 percentage point climb.

“These data show that Kentucky is leading the pack in increasing college completion rates and that is a testament to our campuses’ and state leaders’ dedication to ensuring every Kentuckian has access to the resources they need to succeed—regardless of income or background,” Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson said. “Here at CPE, we’ve doubled down on our investment in helping our institutions meet students’ needs—whether they be academic, social, emotional or even basic needs like food and housing—so they have the support they need to make it to graduation.”

U.S. postsecondary enrollment peaked in 2010 at just over 21 million, according to the Education Data Initiative, but since that time has declined 9.6%. Preliminary data from 2022 showed a total postsecondary enrollment (graduate and undergraduate) of 20.03 million nationwide.

Most American college students—74.1%—attend a four-year institution. About 13.9 million attend a public institution and about 27% select private institutions, EDI data shows. Right at 20.7% of postsecondary students, around 4.1 million, graduate annually.

In Kentucky, preliminary figures for fall 2022 undergraduate enrollment at Kentucky’s four-year public institutions was 90,588 students, down less than half a percent from 2021’s 91,030 and about 3.3% from 2020’s 93,715.

But there’s more to this story—first-year postsecondary student numbers are up an encouraging 9.1% from last fall and now stand at 19,113 freshmen compared to 2021’s 17,523.
And in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, early indications showed only a 0.2% decrease in total enrollment at its 16 schools from 2021 to 2022, coming in at 44,265.
Even so, first-time enrollment numbers for KCTCS increased 4.3% from fall 2021 to fall 2022 and underrepresented minority student numbers increased by 4.6% in the same time frame.

Record-high graduation rates
At the University of Kentucky’s December board meeting, President Eli Capilouto told trustees the university’s six-year graduation rate is nearly 69%, more than 10 percentage points higher than a decade ago.

“And our four-year and five-year graduation rates also are at record levels. In fact, the four-year graduation rate—55%—is 23 percentage points higher than in 2010,” Capilouto said. “That trajectory of (graduation rate) progress is the product of tireless work and effort by hundreds and hundreds of people across our campus—from faculty, whose scholarship and teaching talent attracts and inspires students, to our staff who support our students through advising, targeted interventions and support for an increasingly deep and sophisticated range of resources.”

Preliminary data given UK’s board of trustees in recent months shows a record 6,120 first-year students enrolled for fall 2022, nearly 800 more than the prior record in 2019. Overall preliminary enrollment figures were listed at a record 33,000 students, a 5% increase over last year.

The University of Louisville achieved its highest-ever six-year graduation rate last year despite some “challenging pieces,” said Jim Begany, vice provost for strategic enrollment management and student success. He is pleased with how the university fared during the first few years of COVID.

In fall 2022, UofL reached the highest freshman enrollment in the university’s history at 2,944. Overall enrollment has held at around 23,000 over the past three to four years.

Online enrollment also remains steady, with graduate and undergraduate rates of 2,796 in fall 2022, and 2,626 in 2021, he said.

Western Kentucky University Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Management Scott McDonald said unofficial enrollment figures for 2020, 2021 and 2022 were 17,518, 16,750 and 16,495 respectively.

“COVID did hit us as we were not able to really get back into the high schools to recruit in person until late last spring,” he said. “Our campus tours and visitors were also down, but we have seen those numbers comparable to before COVID.”

Focusing on affordability
Representing 18 member colleges/universities and 50,000 students is the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities (AIKCU), and its Interim President Mason Dyer said for fall 2021, total undergraduate enrollment at member colleges and universities was down just 0.7% from the previous fall.

“We’re still waiting on final numbers from this fall, but early indicators suggested that we were up about 1% in first-year students and should be relatively flat in overall undergraduate enrollment,” he said.

The fact that AIKCU’s member colleges and universities are outperforming national enrollment trends is attributable to value and relevance, Dyer said.

“AIKCU members have remained focused on affordability, by holding down net prices and investing in student aid,” he said. “And Kentucky’s independent colleges are ensuring they stay relevant by offering a wide array of programs that prepare students for the jobs of today and those of the future.”

AIKCU member Midway University announced a fall 2022 enrollment of 1,901, the seventh straight year of growth and record-setting total enrollment for the university. Midway also had its largest-ever incoming class of 297 and a record graduate-student enrollment of 238.

Midway President John P. Marsden said, “Our value proposition has led to our continued growth. We have held our tuition cost for several years in a row, continuing our mission to make college affordable. Our career-focused majors lead to industry jobs and our location in a rural, safe community with the amenities of nearby cities provides hands-on learning opportunities, making us a good choice for students.”

Growing international recruitment at undergraduate and graduate levels has also contributed to robust enrollment numbers, Marsden said.

At Thomas More University, a private Catholic institution in Crestview Hills, the 2021 incoming headcount for fall 2022 came in at 1,986, just slightly below 2021’s enrollment of 2,038, university officials said.

The incoming traditional class in 2022—those recently graduated from high school—was the third highest in the university’s history. Though adult student headcount was down, those students on average are taking more credit hours.

Dean of Enrollment Justin Vogel said, “We were really happy with the way enrollment went in fall 2022. We feel like we’re not recruiting in COVID times anymore. Our application numbers and admit numbers (for 2023) are tracking well ahead of last year. Most schools are not seeing double-digit percentage increases in apps and acceptances, but the increase in our apps and admits from (potential students in) Kentucky is up nearly 20%.”Another AIKCU school, Asbury University, is seeing enrollment growth in all areas, including traditional on-campus undergraduate, high school dual enrollment, online undergraduate and online graduate programs.

President Kevin Brown attributes much of Asbury’s growth to the university’s focus on relational, student-centric needs. He notes that tomorrow’s marketplace is almost impossible to predict, and employers need graduates who are prepared with skills, sensibilities, and character traits that will endure dynamic and ever-changing global environments. Brown said Asbury’s commitment to higher-order competencies makes graduates flexible and relevant to changing market conditions, traits that are reflected throughout all its programs. Other key elements are small class sizes and faculty-student research opportunities. The numbers support Asbury’s focus: 99% of Asbury graduates are either employed in their field or in a graduate program within six months of graduation.

Campuses are reflecting more diversity
Underrepresented minority students are enrolling in Kentucky colleges and universities in larger numbers this year too, up 1.5% from last year to 16,613. Hispanic student enrollment in particular is up in Kentucky’s public postsecondary institutions, increasing 38% for undergraduates and a whopping 68% for graduate and higher degrees, according to KPCE’s Research and Advanced Analytics Unit.

Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) are experiencing a surge in enrollments as well, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Last fall, the number of Black students enrolling in HBCUs increased 11% between 1976 and 2020, and the number of students enrolling in these institutions overall increased 57%, including 25% nonblack students.

Kentucky State University’s website lists its 2022 spring enrollment—the most recent given—as 2,279, up from a low of 1,707 in spring 2016. Its six-year graduation rate for 2015-2021 was 38%.
At Murray State University, total enrollment in fall 2022 rose 1% over the prior year’s figures to 9,489 students. Total graduate-student enrollment was the largest since 2015, a 2.5% increase.

MSU’s most recent annual report showed $115 million in financial aid and scholarships awarded, with 99% of first-year students receiving some of these funds. In addition, 44% of enrollees are first-generation students.

“The quality, value, access and affordability of a Murray State University education continues to be at the forefront of our efforts to recruit, retain and graduate our students while providing them with a transformative college experience,” MSU President Bob Jackson.

In Richmond, Eastern Kentucky University enrollment figures for fall 2019 stood at 14,465, decreased by 481 to 13,984 in fall 2021 and increased by 340 to 14,324 by fall 2022.

Marketing photos for MIdway University, Tuesday March 14, 2017 in MIdway, Ky. Photo by Mark Mahan

“It is crucial for schools to closely monitor enrollment trends and work to attract and retain students to ensure their long-term viability,” said Executive Director of Student Success and Enrollment Management Dan Hendrickson. “This is especially true given the expected decrease in high school graduates over the next four years and the decreasing number of students entering college directly after graduation. EKU has been no exception to that trend; we have seen both enrollment growth and decline, partly due to the expected enrollment decline during the pandemic.”

Encouragingly, EKU has seen two consecutive growth years for its incoming first-year classes, and its number of underrepresented minority students rose from 2,075 in 2021 to 2,316 this past fall.
Hendrickson said efforts have been made to support first-generation students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds so that they are not left behind.

“Overall, EKU has taken an aggressive recruitment approach by eliminating as many barriers as possible for incoming students,” Hendrickson said. “We have eliminated our application fee, adopted test-blind admission, reduced the number of incoming merit awards requiring a test score, introduced the BookSmart program, and drastically increased the number of touchpoints we have with prospective students and families.”