With freshman enrollment in flux, Lafayette’s plans for growth remain uncertain

In+2016+the+college+began+to+increase+the+student+population+each+academic+year+but+due+to+the+ongoing+COVID-19+pandemic+enrolled+100+fewer+students+in+the+class+of+2024.+%28Photo+courtesy+of+Lafayette+College+Admissions%29

In 2016 the college began to increase the student population each academic year but due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic enrolled 100 fewer students in the class of 2024. (Photo courtesy of Lafayette College Admissions)

Nathan Kornfeind

Like other higher education institutions across the country, Lafayette College faced challenges in attracting students amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the rollout of vaccines and a gradual return to campus life, however, the administration said they are cautiously optimistic about the college’s ability to rebound.  

“I think that the number one obstacle that is facing everyone in the enrollment division…is just uncertainty,” history professor and head of the Enrollment Planning Committee Joshua Sanborn said. “There’s a question of whether students are going to be deferring their entry into college as a whole or if they are going to take a year off and see how things shake out.”

“These are the kind of questions that at the beginning of the year were very much open questions about what the landscape would look like. And that is a question which is slowly being answered,” he added. 

A report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center noted a drop in the number of first-time freshmen arriving on college campuses across America, and Lehigh Valley schools were no exception. While Lehigh University saw a decrease in enrollment of just under forty students for their class of 2024, for example, the numbers at Lafayette were significantly higher.  

According to Vice President of Enrollment Management Greg MacDonald, the class of 2024 enrolled about 100 fewer students compared to the previous year’s class. Notably, about 30 students from the class of 2024 postponed their matriculation until spring 2021, and approximately another 50 students who deferred enrollment are expected to join campus the following fall.  

“Another set of questions has to do with how big next year’s class [of 2025] has to be to make up for that shortfall,” Sanborn said. 

Total applications to Lafayette College are up 2% compared to last year’s 8,240 applications, marking the fifth consecutive year that the College received over 8,000 applications. Although these numbers indicate that interest in attending the college remains high even amid the uncertainty of the pandemic, MacDonald noted a disparity exists in who is applying.  

He wrote in an email that applications from Black or African Americans are down 1% and those from first generation college-bound students have declined 4%. Applications from women and international students, on the other hand, have risen by 3% and 2%, respectively.  

“The question of international students from the very moment of the pandemic has been an acute one, not only for admissions but for people throughout the college,” Sanborn said.

In addition to geopolitical considerations regarding current tensions between China and the U.S., he noted that generally, “international travel and visa restrictions instituted by governments have all had a significant impact on our international students and so that’s something that we’ve been trying to adapt to in terms of enrollment.” 

The uncertainty regarding future enrollment numbers likewise presents a challenge to the Strategic Direction for Lafayette College. This 2016 initiative of President Byerly’s set the goal to increase the student body by 50 students per year over eight years to increase additional revenue for financial aid.  

“We’re waiting to hear proposals in this regard from the administration,” Sanborn said. “Understandably, we’re at a point right now where it’s kind of unclear what the next two years, five years are going to bring in terms of enrollment.”

“COVID is one factor, a rapidly shifting landscape in higher education is another,” he added. “I think most people are thinking pretty short term right now. When we are able to start thinking long term, I expect that the administration will engage with the faculty committee to think about that.” 

In the meantime, the enrollment division has been preparing for the class of 2025 to arrive on College Hill. 

Like previous years, more than 300 students have confirmed their enrollment through Early Decision (ED) rounds one or two this year,” MacDonald said. “With all recruitment occurring virtually since last spring and limited opportunities for campus visitation, we feel fortunate that so many students have committed to Lafayette through ED.”