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UMass Boston among the few public colleges to see enrollment increase

Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

In a fall semester marked by sharp enrollment declines across the state’s public campuses, the University of Massachusetts Boston made gains despite the coronavirus pandemic.

UMass Boston, which is offering most courses remotely, enrolled 12,862 undergraduates this fall, a 2 percent increase over 2019, when 12,595 students attended, according to data released Tuesday by the Department of Higher Education.

The Dorchester campus gained students even as the overall undergraduate enrollment in the Massachusetts public higher education system fell by 7 percent, according to state data.

Last week, the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accrediting agency, reported that nearly 35 percent of about 215 public and private colleges it oversees experienced total enrollment drops of 10 percent or more. Fewer than a quarter of colleges in New England, such as UMass Boston, saw enrollment increases.

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UMass Boston, which is primarily a commuter school, was among the first higher education institutions in the area to announce that it would operate mostly online this fall because so many of its students live in low-income neighborhoods hit hard by the coronavirus.

The university probably benefited from setting its fall plans early and offering generous financial aid packages.

“Students knew early on how UMass Boston would proceed with fall classes, which helped them and their families make informed decisions,” said DeWayne Lehman, a spokesman for the university.

Students also most likely wanted to stay closer to home at a time of uncertainty and limited travel. Many may have also wanted to avoid paying higher tuition rates at private colleges when all of their classes were going to be online and may have instead opted for UMass Boston, state higher education officials said.

Most Massachusetts community colleges and state universities were far less fortunate.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment at the state’s 28 public campuses is at 2004 levels, with 160,000 students attending classes.

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The community colleges, in particular, have shed a significant number of students. At some community colleges, including Greenfield, Springfield Technical, Roxbury, and North Shore, enrollment is at the lowest point in 25 years.

At the state universities, the sharpest declines were reported at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams ( down 20 percent), Framingham State University (10 percent), and Salem State University (9 percent), according to state data.

Nationwide, fewer students are attending community college this fall. The public health crisis and its effect on the economy have meant job losses and additional child-care responsibilities for students, many of whom are working parents or have low incomes.

Traditionally, during an economic downturn more students enroll in community colleges, hoping to build up the skills they need to land better jobs. But this crisis has forced many of the state’s neediest students to shelve their degree plans, said Carlos Santiago, the state’s commissioner of higher education.

“They are not going to college. Their plans have changed,” Santiago said. “This is a disturbing development.”

When students' college plans are derailed, it can be difficult to get them back on track to earn a degree, he said.

That could cause long-term problems, because workers with college degrees tend to earn more money and are less vulnerable to layoffs, especially in Massachusetts, which has a highly skilled workforce.

State higher education officials said most public institutions have been making cuts and reducing expenses to handle the decline in revenue that followed having fewer undergraduates. The current stability in state funding for higher education and some increases in graduate student enrollment are helping institutions balance their budgets, said Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the Board of Higher Education.

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“I am reassured about the time frame that we’re most focused on, which is the current fiscal year,” Gabrieli said.

But the state’s college officials warn that if enrollment remains down next fall and revenues again fall short, institutions may have make more drastic cuts next fiscal year.

“The questions about the long term have been accelerated,” Gabrieli said.


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.