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'How big,' Purdue? Record 10K+ freshmen on their way
President Mitch Daniels once pondered Purdue's enrollment surge, asking: ‘How big?’ With another record class announced Friday, Purdue shows it’s not there, yet
A little more than two years ago, as Purdue President Mitch Daniels put the finishing touches on the 2019 edition of his annual letter to students, faculty staff and alumni, he put the question in bold letters: “How big?”
After two years with back-to-back record freshman classes, Daniels outlined how he and trustees were weighing the prospects of just how much of a student body the West Lafayette campus could handle.
That included questions about whether an enrollment surge at Purdue – up nearly 12 percent at that point in 2019 from when Daniels stepped out of the Indiana governor’s office and drove to campus for his first day as president in January 2013 – made sense at a time when many U.S. colleges and universities were hemorrhaging enrollment.
He wrote some of the brick-and-mortar context in that letter:
“Each time we cut a ribbon on a new structure, the same nagging thought comes to mind: ‘I sure hope no one is standing here in 20 years looking at a half-empty building and saying, “What dummy thought this was a good idea?!”’”
So, how big is big enough?
Was Purdue already there?
Or was it just getting started?
“It might be the fundamental thing facing us here at Purdue, right now,” Daniels told me at the time. “I mean obviously if you can achieve it, bigger is better.”
Two years later, it doesn’t look like Daniels and Purdue haven’t settled on a version of “big enough,” yet.
On Friday, as Purdue prepared to send off the class of 2021 during commencement weekend, Daniels tipped the university’s hand, saying the school expected the largest incoming class in university history.
And not just the largest by a little.
Largest by a bunch: More than 10,000 freshmen at a campus that has never had 9,000 in any given year – that didn’t have a freshman class of 8,000-plus until next year’s seniors first arrived in West Lafayette.
“We’ve become accustomed to rising demand for a Purdue education, but this latest surge surpassed all our projections,” Daniels said in a university release Friday. “It imposes a great responsibility on us to maintain and enhance the quality and value that is attracting these record classes. Fortunately, we’ve had lots of experience doing that.”
Here’s what he’s talking about. Purdue's freshman numbers, including anticipated class announced Friday, make the four largest incoming the university’s seen.
A brief freshman enrollment history, based on Purdue numbers released in the past four years:
2018: 8,357 (then a record).
2019: 8,056 (then the second biggest class ever).
2020: 8,925 (current record).
2021: 10,000+ expected (an incoming record ... by 11 percent).
What total enrollment will be won’t be apparent until students descend in August. Official numbers typically come in the weeks after the first day of classes, which this fall will be Aug. 23.
In fall 2020, Purdue reported a record 46,114 students at the start of the semester. That was up 3.5 percent from the previous year, at the time a record of its own. Last fall’s enrollment was up 7,326 from the 38,788 student who were on campus during Daniels’ first fall semester in 2013, according to Purdue figures.
That’s nearly 19 percent more — or roughly the size another entire class of freshman that enrolled in a normal year just five years ago.
Daniels justified a push to reopen campus in time for fall 2020, after sending everyone to remote locations to finish the spring 2020 semester as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, saying students wanted to be there.
They said as much with their deposits. And they proved as much when campus reopened to record enrollment, greeted by a year of coronavirus testing, mask requirements, quarantines spent in P’ville (the not-so-loving nickname attached to Purdue Village’s quarters once reserved as married student housing) and a Protect Purdue Pledges intended to minimize the spread of the virus.
Daniels continued to credit students for living up to that and the campus for aggressively tracking and isolating cases to keep the semester going as safely as it they could.
On Friday, Purdue was touting the reopening plan as a factor that led to a record 58,800 applications. (Typically, Purdue uses the moment to remind the higher ed world that it hasn’t raised tuition since 2012.)
Kris Wong Davis, vice provost for enrollment management, said in the university’s release: “National surveys tell us that a college’s response to COVID-19 greatly influences a student’s likelihood to enroll. … While many schools were not able to open last fall, we were determined to safely welcome back our students after they told us in overwhelming numbers that they hoped we would.”
Friday’s enrollment news followed Daniels’ announcement earlier in the week the students would not be required to get a COVID-19 vaccination to come to campus for fall 2021. But he said those who didn’t would be subject to a similar testing protocol in place since August.
Like he did when he challenged students to live up to the Protect Purdue Pledge to help keep campus open, Daniels laid the vaccination situation on students.
“The vaccines can no longer be called experimental. They've been administered to hundreds of millions of people, and they work, wondrously,” Daniels said in a video released Tuesday. “The higher percentage of us all who choose vaccination, the more open campus can be. There may be activities we can make available to those vaccinated, but not those who decline."
With that settled, the next question is: Where’s Purdue going to fit everyone in?
Friday, the university indicated that former office space – no longer needed as more staff work remotely – are being converted to classrooms, 151 new faculty members and more support staff members are being hired and Purdue is working on contracts with off-campus housing to put up what looks like will be another record enrollment.
Even then, that question … it’s big.