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Baylor boasts record freshman class despite pandemic fears

Baylor boasts record freshman class despite pandemic fears

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Baylor University reports that its freshman class is the biggest in the school’s history, despite an ongoing pandemic and early predictions that colleges would suffer in fall 2020.

After the admissions staff braced for enrollment to take a hit for months, 3,731 freshmen enrolled this fall, breaking the previous 2014 record by 106 students. Of the 19,297 students who enrolled this fall, 14,399 are undergraduates.

Jessica King-Gereghty, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions, said the freshman class is nearly 13% larger than last year’s, making it the largest freshman class in the school’s history. In 2019, 18,033 students enrolled overall, 14,108 of whom were undergrads. Of those, 3,307 were freshmen.

She said universities nationwide expected a 10% to 20% hit to fall enrollment after the pandemic struck, and the university’s full-time statistician agreed. Meanwhile, King-Gereghty and her coworkers had been planning to bring in a larger 2020 class since 2018.

“We were extremely focused on bringing in a large class, because we have had some graduation rates in the last couple of years and we had room to come back to our 14,000 student level of undergraduates,” King-Gereghty said. “So we knew there was plenty of room in the fall.”

Over the summer the Baylor Board of Regents approved $75 million in cuts in the 2020-21 budget year that began in June. Most of the reductions involved eliminating vacant positions, cutting back on adjunct instructors’ hours and instituting a hiring freeze. Baylor President Linda Livingstone said in May that 15 to 20 filled positions could be cut as well, but the university has never disclosed how many people were dismissed.

“We kind of braced ourselves quickly, and Baylor was super prudent to start preparing for that national decline that was predicted,” King-Gereghty said.

Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications, said the university spent “well into the six figures” on preparing to move more than a quarter of its courses online.

Baylor reports that 4,731 students currently live on-campus. The approximately 1,400 students taking only online classes were charged the same fees as in-person students because they still have digital access to university resources like the library and counseling services, according to Cook.

King-Gereghty said her staff worked on attracting more out-of-state students and a more ethnically diverse student body overall. Until the pandemic reached the United States, they appeared to be succeeding.

“We had a team of people recruiting in China in January, so they came back to Waco knowing this was going to be a really big deal,” King-Gereghty said.

The university pivoted to online and virtual recruitment in March, launched a new website and focused more on calling and texting potential new students. The deposit deadline was extended to June 1. Newcomers could take virtual campus tours, and the university provided limited in-person tours until McLennan County’s COVID-19 case count began to spike in June. The recruitment effort also involved hundreds of virtual events aimed at students worldwide throughout the summer, and discounted summer courses helped bring in some new students early.

“We did have to adapt as a university to ever-changing global restrictions,” King-Gereghty said. “So, for example, we allowed our international students to remain in-country and begin the semester at home because of immigration restrictions.”

Of the new freshmen, 1,417 or 38% are minority students, up from 1,238 last year. Of the freshmen class, 41% came to Baylor out-of-state, a 1% increase over last year.

King-Gereghty said Baylor has been working to increase both categories for the last decade, and the number of out-of-state students has increased 21% over the last 10 years.

“It really says that Baylor has grown to be a national, and in fact global, university,” King-Gereghty said.

She said the goal is for half the freshman class to be from out of state.

“I’m just so proud of everything we were able to accomplish and in the end beat all of the national odds,” King-Gereghty said.

According to a report from Baylor’s Office of Institutional Research and Testing, the undergraduate retention rate also increased by 1% to 92.5%.

“This is a true testament to the incredible efforts of hundreds of staff and faculty at Baylor," Baylor President Linda Livingstone said in a statement this week. She said Baylor's "team effort ensured that all of our students have access to a high-quality Christian education that prepares them for worldwide leadership and service by integrating academic excellence and Christian commitment within a caring community."

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