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Some Private Tennessee Colleges Enter Fall With Record-Breaking Enrollment

Monday, September 28, 2020  
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Some Private Tennessee Colleges Enter Fall With Record-Breaking Enrollment

Appeared in: WPLN Nashville Public Radio 

Private universities were expecting to bear some of the brunt of the coronavirus fallout this year. They anticipated students would choose less expensive, public colleges instead.

Enrollment data, however, show a few Middle Tennessee campuses are seeing higher than expected interest.

Lipscomb University set an all-time record this fall — attracting students like Alyssa Lewis, who applied to nine other universities, before making the move from Knoxville to Nashville.

“The main ones were like [University of Tennessee at Knoxville],” says Lewis, a freshman in Lipscomb’s nursing program. “Auburn was another big one.”

Lewis says while the coronavirus didn’t have much of an impact on her college decision at the time, Lipscomb’s private, one-on-one atmosphere makes it more conformable going to classes during the pandemic.

“When I made the decision, corona hadn’t even started, luckily,” says Lewis. “But it has been a blessing that I chose Lipscomb before this all happened.”

Lewis is just one of thousands of new students who flocked to private universities this fall. Lipscomb is one of six private Tennessee colleges doing better than they were last year.

Other colleges recording record enrollment numbers include Cumberland University, Carson-Newman University, Milligan University, Tennessee Wesleyan University and Freed-Hardeman University.

This fall, historically black college Fisk University, in Nashville, welcomed its largest student body in two decades.

So far, in Tennessee, enrollment levels are up for both undergraduate and graduate students — by just more than 2%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Nationally, undergraduate enrollment is down 2.5%, while the number of graduate students increased by 3.9%. That makes a 1.8% overall enrollment dip.

Enrollment Change By Institutions Nationally:

Community colleges: down 8%
Four-year nonprofit private colleges: down 3.8%
Four-year public colleges: down 0.4%
In Tennessee, community colleges tend to enroll a large number of minority and low-income students, but have about 10,000 fewer students than the previous academic year — a 11.5% decline. Individually, Black male enrollment is down by 24%.

Almost any way you count it, the community college system is ailing. Dual enrollment dropped 9%. First-time, full-time freshmen is down 19%. Adult enrollment — students aged 25 and up — declined 13%.

So it’s a bit of relief to some that private colleges can be breaking enrollment records.

“It was really difficult to know what would occur once the campuses reopened,” says Claude Pressnell, the president of Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association, a membership group for private schools. “But I think one key that you find out about independent higher education is that it’s more relational than it is transactional.”

Generally, private universities credit the success to improved recruitment efforts and prioritizing the safe reopening of campuses.

Pressnell, though, says he also believes some private colleges haven’t seen a huge dip because of their willingness to engage students in conversations about the country’s racial and political divide.

“The second thing that I would mention as a factor on the solid enrollment is how we find ourselves socially,” says Pressnell. “I think one of the greatest social questions of their time is being asked. And that’s about racial justice.”

This is one reason why Fisk freshman Maddyson Barron chose the historically black college instead of a predominately white institution.

“I have always been in predominately Black spaces with the exception of a few years in middle school,” says Barron, who is originally from Houston. “I don’t want to be in an area that won’t support me as a Black woman … I felt I had no choice but to go to an HBCU.”

In recent years, HBCUs have been struggling to recruit. But this year’s racial justice protests are piquing new enrollment interest — and even driving some high-profile student-athletes to choose HBCUs instead of predominantly white institutions.

“Especially given the time of police brutality, racism becoming more and more open, and more aggressive as the days go on, I decided I didn’t want the stress of going to a PWI and having to defend my existence,” says Barron.