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Iowa State students and faculty walk across Central Campus on Jan. 16, 2019. 

Iowa State enrollment for the 2020 fall semester is down 1,566 students from last year, with a one-year retention rate of 88.5 percent of first-year students returning for a second year.

Laura Doering, vice president for enrollment management, said the school put forth extensive efforts to prevent the disenfranchisement of students due to the pandemic.

“To have our first-year retention rate during a pandemic be at an all-time record high, that about made me fall off my chair when I read that,” Doering said. “When I first saw that data, I couldn’t have been more excited. We did a lot during the spring term, after spring break when we went remote and throughout the summer to stay connected with students.”

After the 2020 spring semester altered to online, the fall semester was decided to consist of a hybrid format. Iowa State President Wendy Wintersteen said the rate of retention shows Iowa State’s commitment to their student population.

“Last year’s first-year students didn’t have a typical experience with the transition to virtual instruction after spring break,” Wintersteen said. “The fact that these students are returning in record numbers shows their resiliency. It also reflects the work of so many faculty and staff on campus to support students by providing flexibility in courses and support services.”

This differs from previous years but not by much. The 2019 fall semester had a return number of 33,391, opposed to 2020’s return number of 31,825. Out of this year’s enrollment, 5,071 students are first-years, but the drop was expected, Doering said.

“This drop is a combination really of an anticipated decrease as well as some impact from the pandemic,” Doering said. “I would say this is higher than what we would have hoped for. We would have liked to not see a 1600-student drop given the challenges associated with recruitment cycle and the challenges for the student, whether it be out of state or out of county. We are pleased where we landed.”

The yearly budget includes multi-year estimates for enrollment, which accounts for potential fluctuations, said Angie Hunt of Strategic Relations and Communications Media Relations.

“The impacts vary depending on changes in enrollment for each college, but the university and college plan for ups and downs and are prepared to adjust accordingly in the fall,” Hunt said in an email.

A drop in enrollment had been accounted for in the university’s Fiscal Year 2021, along with other losses due to COVID-19. Because of this, there was a 5 percent budget reduction to administrative cost pools. Iowa State’s enrollment has experienced a decline in enrollment since 2017.

“There was great recognition that bringing in the class, and I mean bringing back our continuing students as well as bringing in our new students, new, direct from high school, new transfer, there has been great recognition that it took the entire village at Iowa State University to make all this happen,” Doering said.

Bringing back these students took innovation, Doering said. Normal activities, orientation and Destination Iowa State had to be altered to accommodate for the safety of students and faculty. The university worked to help students without computers or laptops due to the closure of the computer labs and to distribute CARES Act funds to students from the spring semester who experienced hardship from the pandemic.

“Just to think about how we are going to offer courses, hybrid, some face-to-face, some completely online, and what that distribution would look like, and the necessity to do that so the density of students in the classroom and on campus at any given time can be reduced,” Doering said. “Because our top priority, as evidenced by our Cyclone Cares campaign, is to take care of our family, our Iowa State family and to make sure we mitigate risks to the degree that we can.

Over the summer, faculty and academic advisers went to work making phone calls to stay in touch with continuing students. Admissions held virtual meetings with incoming students and families who had concerns about what the year would look like.

Jessie Chalupa is a freshman majoring in mathematics. She decided to go to Iowa State last fall prior to the pandemic. Half of Chalupa’s classes are in-person and half are online.

“I feel like I am kind of getting cheated out of the college experience because I am not able to go out and can’t do as much,” Chalupa said. “I am still making friends and getting my social interactions but not as much because everything is closed.”

Chalupa said her academic adviser has been very communicative throughout the entire process of enrollment, whether it was virtually or in-person.

“I have found that the commitment of our Iowa State administration, faculty and staff, the innovation of Iowa State in trying to move forward and still hold on to as much of that Hallmark student experiences as we can,” Doering said. “More importantly, helping our students continue to make progress toward a degree has been really something to watch. It has been really impressive, and I have been incredibly proud to be a Cyclone, and I am particularly proud of our students.”

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