As Deadline Approaches, JMU Enrollments Look Good

by James A. Bacon

The big question college administrators are asking right now is how many students will enroll in their institutions this fall? A consumer revolt against the high cost of attending a four-year residential college was brewing even before the COVID-19 epidemic. Now many parents are questioning whether it makes sense to take the risk of paying sky-high tuition for their kid to enjoy the privilege of taking their courses online this fall.

Truth-or-consequences time is drawing nigh, and numbers are dribbling in. The figures are looking positive for James Madison University. As of July 27, JMU had received 4,772 deposits for the incoming freshman class, reports the JMU student newspaper The Breeze. That compares to 4,491 entering freshman in the 2019-20 school year.

Applications to JMU increased this year to 25,000, reflecting a nationwide trend in which students are applying to more colleges and universities as well as aggressive recruiting by JMU last fall. Expecting “poaching” from its competitor institutions, JMU increased the number of acceptances this year, which helped boost the number of enrollments. The big question is how secure are those enrollments. When the university’s residence halls open Aug. 21, how many students will show up?

“Students who have paid deposits to us, they’re getting offers from other schools who aren’t trying to grow their own — they’re just trying to get the minimum they need to work,” said Dean of Admissions Michael Walsh. “And, they’re getting some really nice offers. That’s never happened before.”

JMU simply can’t counter these “really nice” scholarship offers, Walsh explained. The university’s key competitors for out-of-state students, like Clemson and Penn State, are prepared to give 56-60% of the out-of-state students they recruit merit aid, which is need-blind aid given based on a student’s academic performance, while JMU offers merit aid to roughly 15% of their out-of-state recruits, Walsh said.

Perrine said JMU regularly competes for out-of-state students with schools that have been around longer and have significantly larger endowments than JMU. This endowment disparity means that JMU often can’t match the financial aid incentives given to these students, offering on average $6,000-12,000 to out-of-state students that received an average of $18,000 from competing universities, Walsh said.

As the No.3-ranked “regional university in the South,” according to the U.S. News & World-Report best colleges rankings, JMU has more flexibility in its admissions policies than many public and private institutions. If JMU is in trouble, you can bet that many other colleges and universities are as well. Extensive shortfalls in enrollments could shatter the business model of Virginia’s higher-ed institutions and engender a crisis in the standard higher-ed business model.

Conversely, if JMU can survive the COVID-19 epidemic, it likely can survive anything. In that case, we can expect business as usual. Change will continue to be driven by the demands of internal constituencies rather than the needs of the student/customers.

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