Fall semester is looming. So, how many students will come to campus?

“I don’t think the college experience is going to be the same this semester and maybe next semester,” says Matthew Scharf, an Idaho State University senior slated to graduate in December.


Matthew Scharf has spent a quiet summer on the Idaho State University campus.

The Kuna native decided to stay in Pocatello for the summer to work an internship as a venue manager; the internship was canceled as events were canceled, so he has worked the summer at a bar. Off hours, Scharf’s on-campus apartment building has been largely vacant. When he goes to the student union building to pick up packages, it’s pretty much empty. He’s just not sure if that’s just the reality of campus summer, or a reflection of the coronavirus pandemic.

Scharf is committed to see out his final semester. Majoring in marketing and minoring in music, he will take 15 credits this fall — three in-person classes and two online classes. “I’ve kind of got to finish this out. … Whatever I’ve got to do to get it done by December is my mentality right now.”

As the 2020-21 school year rapidly approaches, and colleges and universities wrestle complicated health and safety issues, one simple question remains unanswered. They simply don’t know how many students will return to campus — or arrive to begin college. Projecting enrollment is usually a precise science. Just not during a global pandemic.

“I think there are a number of students who are watching and waiting before they commit,” State Board of Education executive director Matt Freeman said.

But the stakes for Idaho institutions are high, and the forecasts from the national level are alarming.

For 2019-20, Idaho’s public four-year schools received $302.6 million in operating money from the state general fund, and collected nearly $281 million in tuition and fees. In a state where policymakers have shifted more and more of the cost of college to students and parents, enrollment is a vital revenue stream.

But since spring, national reports have predicted an enrollment meltdown — in the 20 percent range — as students ride out the pandemic by staying home and putting college on hold. A dropoff of such magnitude would punch a huge hole into Idaho’s college and university budgets.

Idaho doesn’t release its numbers until October. At this point, however, massive enrollment losses appear unlikely.

ISU could see about a 3 percent decrease, President Kevin Satterlee said in a recent interview. This would follow on the heels of previous enrollment decreases at ISU, but a 3 percent decrease is “manageable,” Satterlee said.

State Board of Education President Debbie Critchfield speaks at a December news conference announcing a tuition freeze at Idaho’s four-year institutions. The freeze goes into effect for the 2020-21 school year.


And it’s certainly better than the “staggering” national projections, State Board President Debbie Critchfield said.

“Those are complete game-changers,” she said.

With an eye to the forecasts, Boise State University drew up worst-case scenarios. College administrators were told to plan for a 10 percent budget cut that would come with a 20 percent enrollment decrease. The goal is to be strategic, and to look at “reshaping the university once we emerge from this disruption,” spokesman Greg Hahn said.

Two weeks before the Aug. 24 opening day, Boise State is seeing “very hopeful numbers,” President Marlene Tromp said Thursday, during a virtual town hall meeting co-sponsored by Idaho Education News and Idaho News 6. Undergraduate registrations are up, but first-year registrations are down slightly. Housing requests and deposits look strong.

Still, there are no guarantees.

“We don’t know actually what student behavior will look like when we get a few weeks down the line,” Tromp said.

Like Boise State, the College of Western Idaho has caught the wave of the Treasure Valley’s rapid growth. Even this summer, enrollment at the community college increased by another 8 percent, President Bert Glandon said during the Idaho EdNews-Idaho News 6 town hall.

CWI’s fall semester begins on Aug. 24, and like Tromp, Glandon is looking at a mix of numbers. Current enrollment is down 7.5 percent from the previous fall. But applications are up by 22 percent. And traditionally, the majority of community college students sign up for classes in the final two weeks before a semester.

“Who knows what it’s going to look like in the next 10 days, two weeks?” Glandon said.

Students are starting to arrive at Idaho State, where classes begin on Aug. 17. Dorms will open this week. As the campus slowly becomes more like a campus, Scharf wonders what the semester will feel like. What will new students get to experience? Will it be normal again to get a bagel at the SUB? Will campus groups, such as the business fraternity Scharf leads as president, be able to hold events that were once routine? And will Scharf’s mother get to see her son walk the aisle in December as a first-generation graduate?

“I’m hoping to walk at commencement, if we have a commencement,” he said.

In Moscow, students are also returning to the University of Idaho, where classes will begin on Aug. 24. As best as President C. Scott Green can project it, the U of I could see about a 5 percent enrollment decline. But variables could break in either direction. The U of I could pick up some last-minute registrations from nearby Washington State University, which is going online for fall semester. If parents are nervous about sending their kids to campus for face-to-face classes, the U of I could see additional late-season “summer melt.”

A 5 percent enrollment drop translates to a $5 million revenue loss. Yet the return of students is still a bit “concerning,” said Green. These are students the university needs to test — as soon as possible, since no student will be able to attend class without a negative test result.

In 2020, the enrollment question is critical — but it’s only one tough question.

“The big unknown is how many of our students will show up on campus who test positive for COVID,” Green said.

Idaho Education News will spend the 2020-21 year examining the challenges facing colleges and universities during the pandemic. Here’s a link to our recent analysis — examining how the pandemic has compounded old problems facing higher education.


Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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