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News / Northwest

Some Northwest colleges bounce back from pandemic enrollment slump, while others are still seeing fewer freshmen

By Amanda Sullender and Roberta Simonson, Amanda Sullender and Roberta Simonson, Amanda Sullender and Roberta Simonson, The Spokesman-Review
Published: September 21, 2023, 7:34am

SPOKANE — Hannah Hollenbeck, a freshman at Eastern Washington University from the Tri-Cities, met her roommate, Sarah Hamilton, only a few days ago.

“But we’ve known each other through social media since July,” Hollenbeck said. “We, by lucky chance, got put together.”

Hamilton is from Okanogan and chose Eastern for its homey feel and proximity to Spokane.

“I liked how small it was,” she said.

For Hollenbeck, Eastern is a family tradition.

“This has been the school that I’ve wanted to go to since I was 5. It’s like, my mom went here, my nana went here, more of my family members went here,” she said. “It’s just always been a homey feeling.”

Hamilton and Hollenbeck are two of the more than 10,000 students who will be starting school Wednesday at Eastern, including a freshmen class of 1,330 students.

“It’s lower than where we want to be, but we’re happy to welcome a nice, healthy freshmen class. Like a lot of universities right now, we are working to strengthen our enrollment,” said Dave Meany, director of communications and media relations at Eastern. “We’ve had lower enrollment in recent years.”

The size of this year’s freshmen class sits just below last year’s 1,371 students.

Student enrollment at regional universities has been unsettled since the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Eastern’s freshmen enrollment is static from last year, it remains about 500 shy of the 2019 class of about 1,800.

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Still, Meany says 2019 was higher than normal.

“That’s also about when our overall enrollment started to decline a bit,” Meany said. “We’re optimistic with this class that we’re starting the turnaround, if you will.”

Washington State University posted a 6.5% increase in new first-year students across its network of campuses, which is expected to help the school recover from lower numbers during the pandemic. The overall enrollment remains down 3.8% from fall 2019.

After rising through much of the 2010s, fall enrollment at WSU peaked at 31,607 students in the fall of 2019. It fell by several hundred students in 2020 and again in 2021 before a much steeper drop of thousands last fall when overall enrollment sank to 27,539 students.

Given the uptick among first-semester students, the university has slowed or may reverse its pandemic slump in enrollment.

The rise in new students is most pronounced at WSU’s campus in the Tri-Cities. Enrollment there among first-year students increased 25.7% compared to last fall, while enrollment at the flagship Pullman campus saw a net gain of 5.8% of first-year students.

At Gonzaga University, the number of new first-year students rose to 1,256, along with 131 new transfer students, according to the school’s Office of Enrollment Management. Gonzaga’s overall enrollment was about 7,400 last spring. Final numbers for fall 2023 have not been released.

Whitworth University announced 560 first-year students this fall — a 17% jump from fall 2022.

The school noted it was the largest class of first-year students after the pandemic.

The overall enrollment at the school was about 2,500 when students arrived over Labor Day weekend.

Meany, of Eastern, noted that enrollment numbers could increase in coming days.

“I can’t emphasize enough, until we get to the 10th day, nothing is official because we could pick up more students,” he said.