Record freshman class, overall decline exemplify fall 2019 enrollment volatility

Fall campus
(DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
The largest freshman class in DePaul’s history was not enough to offset a decline in overall enrollment this fall, according to data from the Sept. 28 census. The 22,064 students registered this quarter are 2 percent below the budgeted headcount target and 373 fewer than last year.

DePaul students registered for 277,173 credit hours this fall, generating $237.8 million in gross tuition revenue.  While that is the highest for a single quarter in DePaul history and is $3.6 million more than last fall, it is 1 percent below budget.

These mixed results reflect the impact of both recent trends and DePaul’s diverse enrollment portfolio explains Paula Luff, interim vice president of Enrollment Management.

“DePaul has made strategic decisions and operational investments over the years to support recruitment and enrollment across a broad array of programs and populations,” Luff says. “This has been critical to our success since strong performance in one segment mitigates underperformance in another.

“Over the past few years, however, we have faced ongoing challenges in undergraduate enrollment,” Luff continues. “New freshman enrollment has remained steady while new transfer and continuing student enrollment has gradually declined. This year, the decrease in both transfers and continuing undergraduates was too high for the increase in new freshmen to fully compensate.”  

Freshman class stands out among new student enrollment outcomes 

While new student enrollment is solid overall, freshman enrollment is the highlight. The 2,627 freshmen exceed expectations by 77 students and beat the previous record set in 2012 by 34. 

In addition to size, the freshman cohort is among the most diverse in university history as students of color comprise 44 percent of the class, first-generation students 33 percent, and out-of-state students 38 percent. The academic profile of the class is strong, with the average high school GPA of 3.69 slightly higher than last year.

“We’re incredibly proud of this class. It’s one of our strongest by all measures and the Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid teams worked hard to put it together,” Luff says. “The achievement also reflects the cumulative efforts of Enrollment Management and our university partners in providing the necessary supports and experiences that convert prospective student interest into enrollment.”

New graduate enrollment is strong as well.  The 1,898 new graduate students are 5 percent over the budgeted goal and represent an increase of 78 students over last year.  The College of Computing and Digital Media was the largest contributor, surpassing its target by over 30 percent.

The College of Law also exceeds expectations by enrolling 238 new students, 18 percent more than budgeted.

Transfer market continues to tighten

Transfer enrollment, however, is less than projected. The 1,085 transfer students enrolled this fall are nearly 10 percent below the target and 85 fewer than last year. While transfers remain strategically important to DePaul’s enrollment mix, the declining number over the past few enrollment cycles reflects increasing competitive and demographic headwinds.

“DePaul remains one of the prominent players in transfer student recruitment in Illinois,” Luff says.  “We enroll the most transfer students among private, nonprofit universities in the state, more than 300 more than our nearest competitor.

“Unfortunately, the transfer student market is decreasing in size, which intensifies competition.  Simultaneously, our nearest public competitor, University of Illinois-Chicago, has made a concerted effort to increase its standing within the transfer segment. This is decreasing the number of potential transfer students for DePaul, especially for those who are most price sensitive. The combination of these factors continues to erode our market share.” 

Undergraduate enrollment decline persists

One of the more vexing enrollment challenges is the slow decline of undergraduate enrollment. Since peaking in fall 2012 at 16,498 students, it has decreased annually to 14,214 this year. Some of the decline is related to the transfer market, but a more significant portion is attributable to continuing students.  

“The total number of new undergraduates has been stable the past several years, as have our first-year retention rates for both freshmen and transfers,” Luff explains. “With continuing students still in decline, it requires deeper analysis of those who are not returning and the barriers they face at critical junctures of their academic career.”

While overall enrollment is 456 students less than budgeted this year, continuing undergraduates represent 78 percent of that shortfall.

“This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but our response must extend beyond EM,” Luff continues. “It will require collective examination and systemic solutions to ensure our students receive the support and resources they need to ensure their success at every step along their educational journey.

“However, DePaul has a long history of navigating rocky terrain as well as the extraordinarily talented and dedicated faculty and staff required to do so. This gives me great confidence that we will tackle and overcome the current challenges to ensure our future success.”
 ​
​​