University of Wyoming Union building

Small freshman classes the past two years, and a wait-and-see approach to attendance during the pandemic, have pushed enrollment at the University of Wyoming down 6.3% from the fall of 2019. The news, delivered to trustees earlier this month, likely spells fresh challenges for the university’s already troubled finances.

Some 11,479 students are enrolled this semester, well below the pre-pandemic level of 12,249 in the fall of 2019, the university announced Sept. 20 in a press release. That represents a small decrease from last fall, when enrollment fell to 11,829 after UW shifted to an online-centric model.

UW officials had expected an enrollment rebound this fall after they announced a return to a “traditional” fall semester over the summer. Instead, the continuing decline means UW faces another revenue challenge.

Because tuition income has dropped, UW is now almost $1 million short of its projected net revenue for 2021-22’s general operations, administrators told trustees last week.

“We’ve heard anecdotally that there are many students who were intending to come back but just decided to wait another semester to see how things shake out,” Provost Kevin Carman told the trustees’ budget committee.

The university asked deans over the summer to contact students who were expected to return to the university but hadn’t yet enrolled, Carman said.

“We got a lot of feedback that most of the students were planning to come back but they just hadn’t finalized that decision. But many of them ultimately decided they were going to wait another semester so it’ll be interesting to see if we’ll have a bounce-back in January,” he said, noting that it’s a critical juncture for many.

“We also know that, in general, in higher education, once a student stops out, their probability of returning declines substantially, so we really need to keep a full-court press on communicating with these students and getting them back into the fold,” Carman said.

UW’s student body President Hunter Swilling said the COVID-19 pandemic brought “some devastating impacts on student engagement, mental health and overall state of being.” As a result, the student body has allocated an additional $75,000 for mental health resources from the student fees it controls, he said.

While fall enrollment is smaller than expected, this year’s freshman class is 3.7% larger than last year, and first-time enrollment from Wyoming students is up 11%, UW reported.

Along with eating a hole in UW’s general operations budget, the enrollment decline is also an unanticipated budget stressor for the university’s housing and dining operations, which were already being consolidated with reliance on fewer employees in the last year. That department already has 17 vacant positions and no plans to fill them because of existing budget constraints, said Eric Webb, executive director of residence life and dining services.

For the 2021-22 year, UW is now projecting $1.3 million less revenue from its housing and dining operations, a 33% drop from the originally budgeted $3.9 million. Fewer students in dormitories mean a projected revenue drop of $500,000 for those operations, and there’s $775,000 less revenue projected in newly adjusted dining operations.

UW has also revised its menus, using less expensive ingredients, because of inflated food prices.

“Beef prices, year to year, are up 14%. We didn’t budget for 14%,” Webb said.

UW operations have also been impacted by COVID-19-related labor shortages, most notably a shortage of bus drivers that led the university to suspend certain bus routes, starting in August.

The board of trustees voted Sept. 17 to continue requiring masking on campus as a COVID-19 safety protocol, with plans to revisit the mask requirement at each monthly board meeting.

“The response has been overwhelmingly a sigh of relief with the mandate in place,” Staff Senate President Chris Maki told trustees. “Staff know what is expected of them, and we can expect the same of our students and our faculty.”

Except for a vaccine mandate, UW officials have said masks offer the university’s best chance of maintaining in-person classes.

“This should be viewed as not something that’s restrictive,” said David Jones, dean of the College of Health Sciences. “It is enabling us to be in the classroom. If things get out of hand, we’re heading back to virtual.”

UW dropped its previous masking requirement May 24 in what was described as continuing the “transition to a traditional fall 2021 semester.” At the time, university President Ed Seidel said UW was on track for a “pre-pandemic environment.”

But that was before a surge in the delta variant swept the country. On Aug. 16, knowing students would be returning to campus amid a high transmission of variant infections, UW trustees voted to require masks for a month.

With new data on COVID-19, the new masking policy was designed to be a bit more lenient than last year’s. Under it, masking is only required indoors where social distancing isn’t possible. The trustees also exempted voluntary public events, like sports or music performances, from the masking requirement.

The trustees’ vote to extend the requirement came after Seidel’s advisory group on COVID-19 had recommended the mask requirement be in place for the rest of the fall semester.

“Both students and faculty have been very clear on the consistency piece,” Faculty Senate Chair Adrienne Freng said. “We don’t want to have to go back and forth. That will create a lot of confusion for students as well as an increase in enforcement issues for faculty. … Masks allow students who are currently vaccinated to not have to necessarily quarantine if they’ve had a close contact. Missing a week of class is extremely detrimental, in many cases, to students’ success.”

There have been few compliance issues with the mask requirement so far this year, employees have reported. Freng noted a handful of “isolated incidents,” and Board of Trustees Jeff Marsh noted that one student withdrew in protest of the rule.

While trustees were initially receptive to making the decision to require masking for the rest of the semester, they ultimately opted to revisit the subject at their monthly meetings.

“I’m very hesitant to say that we should have a policy in place for the entire semester,” Trustee Macey Moore said. “I’m hoping that we can still encourage more vaccinations and that we can dangle that carrot out there that, if we have more vaccinations, you may be able to see these masks come off sooner. I don’t want to get into the culture where these masks are here to stay forever.”

The university first announced incentives for student vaccinations on July 9, when just 1,665 UW students had reported they’d received at least one dose of the vaccine. Since then, UW has raffled off cash, a free semester’s tuition and other prizes for students who provide proof of vaccination.

UW and other Albany County entities in August announced another raffle that includes weekly drawings for $1,000 for vaccinated Albany County residents.

UW implemented a one-time mandatory COVID-19 test for all employees and students at the start of the semester, with weekly random testing of 3% of the campus population during the rest of the semester.

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

Managing Editor Rebecca Huntington has worked for newspapers across the West. She hosts a rescue podcast, The Fine Line. Her family minivan doubles as her not-so-high-tech recording studio.

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