Incoming and current college students are uncertain about the future of their education due the COVID-19 pandemic, and institutions of higher learning are likely to see enrollment numbers change as a result.

Colleges and universities were forced to close their doors and shift classes to an online format for much of the spring 2020 semester. While most schools in Northeast Mississippi have indicated they intend to hold in-person classes again this fall, the future remains uncertain as coronavirus cases continue to spread.

Northeast Mississippi Community College has already seen an uptick in enrollment during the pandemic and Itawamba Community College anticipates the same.

Chassie Kelly, director of Enrollment Services at NEMCC, said enrollment is up 32% for the upcoming fall semester and over 100% for this summer compared to the same time last year.

She said the college’s recruiting office made a conscious effort early in the pandemic to reach out to prospective students via email and a simple letter letting them know that the college was there to help them pursue an education.

“We just were really focused, like all colleges are, on the students,” Kelly said. “And making sure their services continue to be met throughout this.”

As NEMCC students register for next semester’s classes, business major Channing Barkley said he took in-person classes for granted before the pandemic.

“(The transition to online) was tough for sure,” Barkley said. “I think a lot of it had to do with face-to-face interactions with people, friends and teachers, because I’m more of a visual learner. It definitely made it tougher.”

NEMCC President Dr. Ricky G. Ford announced on May 12 that the college intends to reopen for face-to-face classes in August, but courses will be listed as “hybrid” to allow for the flexibility of moving solely online if the need arises again.

Dr. Melissa Haab, dean of Enrollment Services at ICC, said that although it’s too early to tell how much enrollment may increase this fall, the college is “fully anticipating” a greater demand from students especially if classes were to remain online-only.

“If (students) are going to do it, and have to do it online, then we do believe they will choose to come to whatever their local community college is,” Haab said.

ICC has plans to return to face-to-face instruction for its summer classes in July, along with offering online and live-streamed options.

“The face-to-face opportunities during the July session will enable ICC to progress to a fall semester that is as normal as possible,” ICC President Dr. Jay Allen said. “After months of adapting to changes daily, we all seek a sense of normalcy. We can’t wait until students are back in the classrooms, on the athletic fields or courts and engaged in activities. This is the first step.”

Both Mississippi State University (MSU) and the University of Mississippi (UM) have indicated that they hope to have students return to campus in the fall, but plans are still in development.

Additionally, the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning has assembled a task force to develop a plan for universities to start and complete the fall 2020 semester “in the safest and most effective way.”

MSU Provost and Executive Vice President Dr. David Shaw will serve as chair of the task force. Dr. Regina Hyatt, MSU vice president for Student Affairs, will also represent the university. UM’s representatives are Larry Sparks, vice chancellor for Administration and Finance, and Dr. Charlotte Pegues, interim vice chancellor for Student Affairs.

Dr. John Dickerson, MSU registrar and director of the Office of Admissions, said the number of applications received from prospective freshmen and transfer students hasn’t changed much since the COVID-19 crisis began.

If anything, he believes enrollment may increase since ACT and SAT exams were largely unable to be administered in March or April.

“We’ve gone to more of a holistic approach of admitting students, so we probably have admitted more students than maybe we could have otherwise because of that,” Dickerson said. “Because we’ve been able to admit some students who don’t have test scores.”

Meanwhile, MSU’s Summer Advantage Online program – with expanded class offerings and lowered tuition rates – has seen new levels of success this year, Dickerson said.

“We know that there’s not a lot that students can do,” Dickerson said. “They can’t study abroad, in some cases trying to find a job is very difficult, so it’s a great opportunity to catch up or get ahead or finish up their degree.”

Nearly 7,000 students have already enrolled for summer classes, which Dickerson estimates is around 1,000 more than at this time last year.

Dickerson said his office has received lots of questions about the fall semester, with many relating to whether classes will be online or in-person, class advising, scheduling and housing.

“We are trying to prepare as much as possible and do as much as we possibly can knowing that this COVID-19 situation is going to probably impact the decisions of not only our new students but also our current students,” Dickerson said.

UM Provost Noel Wilkin said it’s difficult to assess exactly how applications have been affected by COVID-19 because they roll in throughout the year, but believes money will be the main deciding factor for students while pursuing education in the coming year.

“Families’ financial situations are likely going to be a factor that many students are worried about and/or dealing with because of the widespread impact that the pandemic has had on the economy,” Wilkin said.

While enrollment rates for summer sessions and intersessions at the university are still strong, Wilkin said, they have not been as high as they were last year.

“As you can imagine, you’ve got students who are working here in Oxford and then they take a class while they’re working,” Wilkin said. “So when the jobs went away because of the disruption caused by the pandemic, it did have an impact on the number of students who took summer classes.”

Wilkin thinks students from in and out-of-state will continue to choose UM for their education because “our people care deeply about the students and student success.”

“We offer excellence at a rate that is extremely affordable, and the success of our students is really a testament to the quality of the education we provide,” Wilkin said.

Twitter: @AlsupTheWriter

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