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CU Boulder enrollment climbs to pre-pandemic levels

Freshman class still smaller than 2019 levels

Lexi Cozzetti, left, and JP Connick enjoy the weather on Norlin Quad on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus on Friday. The university’s enrollment is now back up to pre-pandemic levels..  (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Lexi Cozzetti, left, and JP Connick enjoy the weather on Norlin Quad on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus on Friday. The university’s enrollment is now back up to pre-pandemic levels.. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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University of Colorado Boulder saw a return to pre-pandemic enrollment and more undergraduate, graduate and transfer students enrolling this fall, according to student census data published this week.

The campus is reporting 35,897 students enrolled for fall 2021, an increase from fall 2020 enrollment of 34,975 students and from fall 2019 enrollment of 35,528. Total enrollment increased by 2.6%, with undergraduate enrollment increasing by 1.8%, graduate enrollment increasing by 6.5% and transfer student enrollment increasing by 9.7%.

Like colleges and universities across the country, CU Boulder was hit with declining enrollment and increased expenses in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which resulted in budget shortfalls, pay cuts, layoffs and furloughs.

Incoming freshman enrollment dropped by 11% in fall 2020, and while that number increased this year, it did not return to pre-pandemic levels. There were 7,113 first-year students enrolled in fall 2019, 6,326 enrolled in fall 2020 and 6,785 enrolled this fall.

Smaller incoming classes will have a long-term impact on the campus’ finances, said Chief Financial Officer Carla Ho-a in a statement, but the increase in enrollment is encouraging as the university continues to deal with the impact of the of the pandemic.

“A return to pre-pandemic enrollment means we will have greater stability of resources to invest in our students’ classroom experience and campus life,” she said. “We are still grappling with the lasting effects of the global pandemic.”

University staff worked through the summer and up until the start of classes to make sure students were re-enrolling for the upcoming year, said Kevin MacLennan, interim associate vice chancellor for enrollment management.

“It’s an all-out campus effort to re-enroll students that we were seeing weren’t registering on time,” MacLennan said.

Those efforts were successful, with retention rates for freshman hitting 87.5%, a tie for the all-time high set by first-year classes of 2016 and 2017.

The pandemic forced CU Boulder recruiters to pivot sharply, MacLennan said, creating an all-virtual experience that the admissions office will continue to use so that students and parents have more options to learn about the university.