WEST LAFAYETTE — Purdue University President Mitch Daniels built his argument about reopening the West Lafayette campus, in part, on a premise that there was a big demand from students who were ready to return or to enroll as freshmen.
The week of Sept. 14, Daniels unveiled record enrollment numbers for freshmen, for undergraduates and an overall enrollment of 46,114 for the fall 2020 semester — which is 1,563, or 3.5%, more students than in a then-record-setting fall 2019.
Just shy of 90% of those students were taking some form of in-person courses, as Purdue navigates holding classes during the coronavirus pandemic.
Daniels signaled early on — within weeks of the campus all but emptying in March as a COVID-19 precaution — that Purdue was prepared to take in a larger student body at a time when enrollment projections on campuses across the country weren’t certain. Over the summer, Daniels made national headlines with predictions that Purdue could reopen safely and that deposits on fall 2020 semester tuition showed students were willing to come to campus.
Even then, Daniels told the faculty that numbers were more than expected.
“To our surprise — I guess astonishment wouldn’t be too strong — when it all settled out, we had not just a record but a dramatic increase and a record number of freshmen,” Daniels said. “Once again, I view this as a tribute to our faculty for establishing standards that students around the nation and around the world continue to notice and seek out.”
The numbers of incoming students weren’t as first reported by Daniels, who told Purdue trustees in August to expect 8,977 freshmen. Still, the 8,925 freshmen enrolled in fall 2020 was 10.7% more than in fall 2019, when Purdue had its second-largest incoming class in the campus’ history. Purdue’s previous freshman class record was 8,357 in fall 2018. Of those freshmen, 1,294 — or 14% — were attending classes online only.
Kristina Wong Davis, vice provost for enrollment management at Purdue, said the university set a target last fall for 8,050 incoming students. That was before COVID-19 hit. Still, Purdue wound up with 57,279 applications — also a record for the university.
She said Purdue aimed for 900 more than that for fall 2020, knowing the coronavirus would keep some international students from being able to get to campus, given travel restrictions, and that others would opt for online-only courses.
She also said Purdue typically can count on about a 5% “summer melt” — students who accept offers from the university but change their minds before the fall semester starts. That “melt” came in slightly lower than that, she said.
“In this environment, we didn’t know what to expect around that,” Davis said, “but a lot of this is very intentional. ... I think coming out early, much like the president often says, saying what we intended to deliver for fall and then continually communicating all summer with families as decisions were made, helping them to understand what expectations to have regards to campus, goes a long way to helping families make a decision they feel good about.”
Undergraduates number 35,122, or 1,476 and 4.4% more than a record set in fall 2019.
The 46,114 overall enrollment figure is up from the previous record of 44,551 students in fall 2019. The fall 2020 total continues a run of four consecutive record enrollment years on a campus where the student body has grown by 18.9% since 2014.
Davis called Purdue has been well-positioned for growth — with a stable tuition, programs people recognize and a robust application pool — even in what she called “a declining higher education environment” that was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think we’ve been able to withstand a lot of turbulence,” Davis said. “It doesn’t mean we’ll weather the storm forever. But for right now, we seem to be doing well in this environment, despite everything.”
She said next year could be trickier still, given that high school seniors are dealing with an often uncertain mix of online and in-person classes, along with changes to access to college prep courses.
“It’s an environment that could reshape the application pool, and we’re trying to work through that,” Davis said.
Daniels told faculty that Purdue was watching in the coming week to see how things shake on other campuses.
“From anything we know anecdotally, this is an unusual, perhaps unique, outcome and one that had us scrambling a little bit to address,” Daniels said.