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Enrollment increases at Utah colleges, bucking national trends

A photo of the SLCC campus.
Brian Albers
The student center on the campus of Salt Lake Community College.

Enrollment at Utah’s public colleges and universities is bouncing back after a slight decline last year.

Overall enrollment across the state’s 16 four-year, community and technical colleges grew by more than 2.24% or 4,657 students, according to numbers released Monday by the Utah System of Higher Education.

It’s a positive development, considering enrollment nationwide has been on a downward trajectory over the last decade and especially so during the pandemic. Last spring, college attendance fell by more than 600,000 students across the country, the steepest drop in a decade.

“Utah’s enrollment has been on an upward trend for several years, and despite the challenges over the last year, we are continuing to see enrollment growth,” said USHE Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme in a statement. “I don’t believe one factor over another is driving enrollment growth in the state compared to other states. However, it’s clear that students still see the value in education after high school and that our institutions are doing their part to make sure they are offering the certificates and degrees most needed in its region and the state.”

All but three Utah schools had higher enrollments this year, including a record jump for the University of Utah. It admitted its largest freshman class ever this year and recorded its largest total enrollment in school history, according to a press release.

Six of the state’s eight technical schools also saw double-digit increases, including a nearly 21% jump — 222 students — at Southwest Technical College. Woolstenhulme noted though that their relatively small student populations lead to larger percentage swings.

But enrollment at Salt Lake Community College is down for the second year in a row, following a more than 7% decrease last year. That’s more in line with national trends, as community colleges have seen some of the sharpest declines during the pandemic.

SLCC Enrollment Manager Ryan Farley said a large part of the drop is due to the circumstances of the students the school serves.

SLCC has the most diverse student body in the state. More than half of students attending are the first in their families to go to college and over a third are students of color, Farley said.

“We just know that those individuals are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic and continue to be,” he said. “Whether that's due to the pandemic itself or the results, such as job or family obligations changing, we have no doubt that that's part of the decline.”

Farley said the state’s relatively strong economy has also shaped student enrollment. A large part of the enrollment decline comes from older students opting to work instead of returning to school.

Utah’s other community college, however, saw an increase in attendance for the second year in a row. Enrollment at Snow College increased by 5.28% this year, following a nearly 8% jump last year.

Teri Clawson, an enrollment manager for Snow College, said she attributes the continued student interest in part to the school’s expanded technical programs and online offerings.

“We have a lot of different offerings to a lot of different people,” Clawson said. “And we serve them really, really well. So if you come, we're going to make sure that you're successful.”

Snow College, with 6,106 students, is much smaller than SLCC, which has more than 27,000. Clawson said that allows for smaller classes and gives students more individualized attention, which can help with retention.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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