The COVID-19 pandemic has left no sector of the economy untouched, and for many institutions of higher education, especially small liberal arts colleges, the coronavirus has delivered a staggering blow. Many small colleges are struggling financially due to declining enrollments and rising costs associated with COVID-19, and some have closed their doors permanently.
In an attempt to cope with the challenges of the pandemic, many colleges and universities have eliminated academic and athletic programs, furloughed faculty and staff, curtailed co-curricular activities, postponed or cancelled athletic competition, and reverted to teaching courses entirely online again this fall.
The question now is, considering all the circumstances and the pandemic’s widespread stymying effect on higher education in particular: How has Newberry College sustained enrollment and even grown student retention to record highs?
The total number of full-time students this fall is 1,206, just shy of last year’s all-time high of 1,225, but still the second-highest enrollment in the college’s history. Including part-time students, the total student population is 1,265, compared to last year’s record 1,271. This year’s incoming class is stronger academically at enrollment than any previous class on record, with 56% bringing in a high school GPA greater than 3.5.
The groundbreaking figure is the percentage of full-time students enrolled in the spring who returned for the fall, also known as retention. An astonishing 86% of potential returners – who exclude May graduates – decided to come back for another semester after a tumultuous spring. This is the highest spring-to-fall retention rate in the last four years, a roughly 2-point increase over last year and a 4-point increase over 2018.
Like many other institutions, Newberry devoted much of the spring and summer to expanding dining areas, leasing temporary showers and restrooms, reconfiguring classrooms and redesigning living spaces. But Newberry had something else in mind. The plan was not only to prepare campus for the safe return of students in the fall, but also to make the campus environment even more student-centered.
“We took the chaos and uncertainty of the coronavirus and turned the challenge into an opportunity,” said President Maurice Scherrens. “There were things that absolutely needed to be done for a safe return, but it was also an opportunity to focus on creating a more welcoming, vibrant living-learning community for potential, incoming and returning students.”
Late in the spring, while classes were completely virtual, Newberry coordinated an initiative to ensure each student stayed connected with the college community. The college developed a communication plan that ensured that 10 days would not go by without a message of encouragement or updates on campus operations. Perhaps most responsible for the record student retention, the Center for Student Success organized faculty, staff, coaches and alumni to have regular, direct contact with each student. Whether the students’ concerns were financial or academic, there was a member of the college community to show them a pathway. This not only helped students get through the abrupt transition and subsequent challenges of remote learning, it kept the community together beyond the confines of curriculum when members were states and hemispheres apart.
“I wanted to come back to campus, because I don’t like online classes, I can’t learn like that. In the spring, my professors communicated well, and that helped me know what I needed to do,” said Pete Elmore, a junior from Barnwell majoring in pre-engineering. “But classes just aren’t the same outside the classroom, so I’m glad to be back.”
Ahead of fall semester, the Office of Admission unveiled a test-optional application for potential students unable to take or retake the ACT, SAT or English proficiency tests. The Board of Trustees unanimously renewed the college’s Tuition Promise, a program which freezes tuition for incoming students for their four years at Newberry. The college also waived fees for summer courses to keep students engaged in their studies over the summer months, resulting in the highest summertime enrollment on record.
In August, students were brought back in weekly phases while classes began virtually and on time, to allow everyone to gradually adjust to the “new normal” of campus life. The campus’ small size and 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio has made the return to campus life that much easier and safer. Most courses moved into the classroom after Labor Day, and instruction will continue to be available in a “hi-flex” format, a mix of virtual and classroom instruction.
“Classes were probably the biggest concern for me. I was planning on taking a lab science class, and wasn’t really sure how I was going to be able to get the proper credit for that, taking it online,” said junior Connor Shadday, of Lexington, a music education major. “If I was not able to live on campus, this would’ve been the worst year ever. I’m also thankful for the ability to have some classes online and some classes in person.”
For Newberry College administrators, the health of students, faculty and staff has been the highest priority, and with their efforts to bring students back safely has come growth in many ways. There is, however, much work to be done, and the college has already developed plans to reach new heights in the fall of 2021.
The college anticipates a strong spring enrollment and has announced an enrollment target of 1,300 students for next fall. The college plans to add new academic programs, and the Board of Trustees just approved the addition of women’s triathlon as a new NCAA sport, to be introduced in fall 2021. In fundraising, the college has raised $30 million of its $35 million Scaling the Summit capital campaign goal. The Melvin and Dollie Younts Athletic Performance Center was completed this summer, with a formal grand opening on the horizon. Fundraising efforts continue with the goal of completing the campaign in 2021 with the construction of an Athletic and Academic Achievement Center at Setzler Field, and a Nursing and Health Science Center.
At last week’s staff town hall meeting, Scherrens may have said it best: “We are not out of the woods yet, with all the uncertainty of the times, but we must remind ourselves that ‘not every storm comes to disrupt our lives, some storms come to clear a path.’ We are bound only by our imagination and our willingness to do whatever needs to be done. By staying together, we will emerge stronger than ever.”