College ends decade of new student decline with most diverse freshman class in Columbia’s history expected for Fall 2019

By Alexandra Yetter and Blaise Mesa

Shane Tolentino

For the first time since 2008, registration among new students is up from the previous year. And the college is marking it as a turning point after years of enrollment decline.

As of Aug. 5, 141 more incoming students are registered for the Fall 2019 semester compared to this time last year, according to Vice President of Enrollment Management Michael Joseph.

“We’re looking at new students that are the best in 11 years and our first increase,” Joseph said. “And we’re looking at total headcount that will be up … for the first time since 2008.”

Joseph attributes the uptick in new students to aggressive marketing tactics, the hard work of the admissions team, focusing on making the college more affordable and about “30 [other] things … coming together.”

Although every program saw a boost in registration, Joseph said the Theatre Department and media-related programs saw the most significant increase.

Pegeen Reichert Powell, chair of the English and Creative Writing Department, said the college’s larger incoming freshman class has created a shortage of instructors for the Writing and Rhetoric courses.

The college is looking to hire around three to six additional adjunct professors to teach Writing and Rhetoric I and II, as well as the Writing and Rhetoric stretch courses—which encourage students to explore a variety of genres, media, platforms and technologies—in the Fall semester. The college has completed about five interviews.

“We are meeting some interesting, qualified instructors,” Powell said.

Candidates must have a master’s degree in English or a related field, or a master’s of fine arts in creative writing, Powell said.

The positions are filled on a semester by semester basis. If enrollment grows or maintains its current rate, Powell said the college will “likely need these same instructors to teach.”

The last day for incoming students to register is the first day of courses, Sept. 3. However, Joseph does not expect to see a large wave of registration between now and then since more than 95% of those expected to register already have, he said.

On paper, the incoming freshman class has what Joseph called a “trifecta” of qualities—they are expected to be the strongest class academically, have a record number of out-of-state students and be the most diverse class in Columbia’s history.

Of the 1,750 students projected for the freshman class, roughly 900 identify as a person of color, according to Joseph.

“Going after that population has been really important,” Joseph said.

Now the college has a jumpstart on increased registration, the next hurdle will be retention of students from year to year⁠—a challenge that is all too familiar to the admissions team.

According to a Fall 2018 Institutional Effectiveness report for the Fall 2015 cohort, only 70.5% of students stayed at Columbia for their sophomore year, 57.9% for their junior year and 54.5% stayed through their senior year. In other words, only slightly more than half of the freshman students were still at Columbia as seniors.

“It sends a signal that we’ve turned some things around as it relates to enrollment, and we’ll use that as the building block for continued growth into the future,” Joseph said. “We’ve got to make sure we do a good job retaining those students, but it looks like that should continue going forward.”

Joseph said he expects the college’s total headcount to be at 7,000 this fall semester and up to 8,000 students by 2025 with the assistance of a marketing budget just under $1 million. He expects an aggressive online and social media advertising campaign, national outreach and possibly some television or radio advertisements in the future to help boost the college’s numbers.

In a May 20 registration report, total enrollment among graduates and undergraduates was down 485 people, compared to the same time the previous year. By May 28, total enrollment was down by only 102 people compared to the previous year.

“Registration for current students started 6–7 weeks ago,” said Lambrini Lukidis in a June 7 email statement to The Chronicle. “New students began registration in small numbers around May 13. They have really picked up the past two weeks. We have slightly over 200 more new students registered to date compared to last year at this time.”

In 2013, 10,142 students were enrolled at Columbia. By 2018, only 6,825 students were enrolled, according to Institutional Effectiveness.

In an effort to bring in more students, the college announced a five-year strategic plan, led by Joseph, to boost enrollment to 8,000, as reported Feb. 5 by The Chronicle.

Part of that plan includes generous financial aid packages, a new marketing strategy, utilizing analytics to target new students, introducing new programs and combining current graduate and undergraduate programs.

College enrollment decline is a growing national trend, with a 1.7% decrease among all postsecondary education enrollment from Spring 2018 to Spring 2019, according to a May 30 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Registration Center. At Columbia, enrollment has dropped by nearly 33% since 2013. 

In the past, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim has held the college’s “failed” shift from open enrollment to selective enrollment as one reason for the staunch decrease.

“We’re looking better than we have in the past,” said Faculty Senate president and associate professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department Sean Johnson Andrews. “There’s a lot of positive feelings about where we’re at relative to previous years.”


Updated Aug. 14 with the most recent Fall 2019 registration numbers and additional interviews.