Firm numbers for fall enrollment at Utah’s public colleges and universities are not yet available, but projections by Utah’s Commissioner for Higher Education suggest head counts at most state-supported colleges and universities will be flat or grow with the exception of Salt Lake Community College.

Commissioner Dave Woolstenhulme, during a recent report to the Utah Legislature’s Education Interim Committee, said SLCC “has probably been hit the worst, just because the population of students who would usually go to a community college are probably the ones that are struggling the most.”

Nationally, community college freshman enrollment was down 19% last fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Last fall, SLCC’s enrollment was down 7.5% by the third week of the fall semester, again while the rest of the Utah System of Higher Education colleges and universities held steady or slightly increased.

SLCC spokeswoman Erika Shubin said SLCC’s enrollment decrease last year was not as pronounced as peers nationally.

“Last year, we encouraged enrollment by deferring an approved tuition and fee increase for the fall 2020 semester, and we eliminated the online class fee. This was especially important as about 70% of our classes for fall 2020 were online due to COVID-19,” she said.

At the same time, enrollment was down 14.5% in Arizona’s community colleges, 12.6% in Colorado’s community college system and 15.8% in New Mexico’s two-year colleges.

Despite pandemic, this Utah university has the largest enrollment in its history

Shubin said the college does not yet have “final, validated enrollment figures ready to release for this semester, enrollment has been a concern since last fall.”

The community college has been taking steps to encourage students to attend SLCC, through both financial relief and personal contact with students who may be waiting on the sidelines, she said.

“This year we removed the $40 application fee, we provided $1,000 scholarships to new students who are taking nine credits or more, and we have worked hard to follow up with students who have started the enrollment process but have not finished it,” Shubin said.

Salt Lake Community College is also researching the reasons behind the enrollment dip “but we believe our students have been deeply impacted by the pandemic, likely influenced their decisions about attending college.”

About 80% of SLCC students work while attending college, as well as many adult learners and students who are parents.

“We believe a good number of our students have had to focus their efforts on work and family, especially as the pandemic lingers. We also believe Utah’s strong labor market is another reason for enrollment challenges,” Shubin said.

When asked how the pandemic was affecting state-supported colleges and universities, Woolstenhulme said federal stimulus funding has helped, especially with one-time expenses.

“Budget wise, most institutions are in pretty good shape,” he said.

“It’s a little bit of a mixed bag when you talk about budgets across the board. I think Salt Lake Community College is probably going to be hit the hardest because a good portion of an institution’s budget is tuition, and so it’ll be interesting to see how that is going to impact Salt Lake Community College ongoing,” he said.

While legislative appropriations generally cover 75% of college and university employees’ compensation increases, the system of higher education funds the remaining 25%, primarily through tuition increases.

Woolstenhulme credited SLCC President Deneece Huftalin for steps the college has taken to stabilize enrollment, which is hemorrhaging elsewhere in the country.

Declines in enrollment among students who are underrepresented minorities have taken an especially hard hit — down by nearly 30% nationally, according to the research center.

The “why” is somewhat elusive, but uncertainty about the ongoing pandemic may be a factor. Some parents have been needed at home to help children learning by remote and sharing internet access and home computers with them.

Now that personal stimulus assistance has been phased out, many students are returning to the workforce.