By Doug Ward

The headlines about KU’s fall enrollment sounded much like a Minnesotan’s assessment of winter: It could be worse.

Indeed it could have been, given the uncertainties brought on by the coronavirus and rumblings among students that they might sit out the year if their courses were online.

Depending on how you measure, enrollment on the Lawrence and Edwards campuses fell either 2.7% (headcount) or 3.4% (full-time equivalency) this fall. That is about the same as the nationwide average (-3%) but slightly worse than the average decline of 1.4% at four-year public universities, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

A single year’s top-level data provides only a limited view of a much bigger picture. To better understand this year’s enrollment, we need to take a broader and deeper look in terms of geography, history and demographics. Here’s what I’m seeing in data from Academics and Analytical Research, the Kansas Board of Regents and some other sources.

Enrollment declines throughout the state

KU was hardly alone in dealing with the sting of an enrollment decline. Among regents universities, Pittsburg State had the largest decline in enrollment (-5.9%), followed by K-State (-5.1%), KU, Wichita State (-3.1%), Fort Hays State (-2.8%) and Emporia State (-2.3%).

As a whole, the state’s community colleges fared far worse, with a combined drop of 11.7%, about 2 percentage points higher than the national average. Johnson County Community College had the largest decline (18.7%). Enrollment at JCCC has fallen 23.5% over the past five years, a troubling statistic given KU’s proximity and institutional connections to JCCC. During that same period, enrollment at the state’s 19 community colleges has fallen by an average of 18.6%, according to regents statistics. Eight of those colleges recorded declines of more than 20%.

Kansas is one of 11 states where the decline in undergraduate enrollment exceeded the national average, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Others include Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana and Florida. Only five states recorded increases in undergraduate enrollment, including Nebraska.

Putting the trends into perspective

Over the past 50 years, college and university enrollment has reflected broader societal trends that made a college degree a sought-after goal. As numbers trend downward, though, enrollment figures also highlight the looming challenges that most of higher education faces.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, undergraduate enrollment rose steadily as baby boomers entered college in larger percentages than previous generations. The number of colleges – especially community colleges – grew, providing more opportunities for students to seek a degree. Federal aid, including low-interest loans, also expanded, as the federal government promoted the importance of education and invested in university research. A college degree became the minimum standard for many jobs and led to higher salaries over a degree holder’s lifetime.Chart showing total births in Kansas from 1995 to 2018

Those trends are certainly reflected in KU’s enrollment data. Between 1965 and 1991, headcount enrollment at KU nearly doubled. (See the chart below.) It declined after a recession in the early 1990s, but rose again in the early 2000s, peaking in 2008 during the recession. It declined until 2012, stabilized briefly, and then began another decline, one that is very likely to continue given a declining school population. K-12 enrollment in Kansas peaked in the 2014-15 school year, according to Kansas State Board of Education data. It is projected to start a significant decline in the late 2020s, largely because of a decline in birth rates after the recession of 2007-08. Since peaking in 2007, birth rates in Kansas have fallen 13.6%. (See the chart above with the most recent data available from the state.)

In another disturbing trend, the number of Kansas students coming to KU has dropped 17.7% since 2011. (It was down 2.9% this year.) The university has attracted more out-of-state students, who make up about 40% of the student population, but the trends among Kansas students are bleak.

KU attracts the largest number of students from Johnson County, which accounts for 28.3% of the university’s enrollment. The number of students from Johnson County has fallen 7.3% over the past decade. That is far less than the drop in students from other counties from which the university draws the most students: Douglas (-25.2% since 2011), Sedgwick (-27.1%), Shawnee (-26%). Declines in others aren’t as dramatic but are still troubling: Wyandotte (-9.8%), Leavenworth (-3.3%) and Miami (-3.2%). Others are far worse: Saline (-30.5%), Riley (45.1%), Reno (42.3%).


More Hispanic students, fewer international students

One of the most interesting developments I saw in enrollment this fall was that for the first time in decades, the number of Hispanic students at KU exceeded the number of international students. (See the chart below.)

This reflects two major trends. First the Hispanic population of Kansas has grown more than 70% since 2000. Hispanics now make up more than 12% of the Kansas population and 18.5% of the U.S. population. The number of Hispanic students at KU rose 3.3% this year and has risen nearly every year since the mid-1980s.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has taken a less-than-welcoming stance toward international students and immigration in general. That, combined with a global pandemic and lack of a coherent plan for combatting the pandemic, has sent international enrollment at U.S. universities plummeting. By one estimate, the number of new international students at U.S. universities could soon reach the lowest level since World War II.

As KU reported, the number of international students at the university declined more than 18% this fall. That decline is greater than the 12.5% decline in international students at public four-year universities, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Other trends worth noting

  • A continuing rise in female students. The number of female students on the Lawrence campus continued to exceed the number of male students. The number of male students fell 1.4% this year, compared with 0.5% for female students, and has fallen 11% since 2011. For the first time in at least a decade, the number of women who transferred to KU was larger than the number of men who transferred. Men now make up 47.5% of the KU student population. Nationally, the number of women seeking college degrees surpassed the number of men seeking degrees in 1979. That was the first time since World War II that more women than men attended college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the 40 years since then, the gap has only increased, as it did again this year. Sixty-seven KU students did not identify as male or female this year. That was similar to the 73 in 2018 but down from 509 in 2019, suggesting that last year’s spike was intended as statement against the reporting system, primarily by graduate students.
  • Another decline in graduate enrollment. The number of graduate students on the Lawrence campus fell 2.2% this year, compared with an increase of 4.7% at public four-year universities. That is the fourth consecutive year of declines. The number of graduate students has fallen 12.5% since 2011. Graduate enrollment at KU peaked in 1991 and has declined 25% since then. (See the chart labeled University of Kansas Enrollment, 1965-2020.)
  • Another increase in part-time enrollment. I noted last year that the number of part-time students had been rising steadily. That number rose 6.8% again this year and is 18.9% higher than it was in 2011. Part-time students now account for 17.7% of the student body. That isn’t necessarily bad, given the university’s agreement to provide dual enrollment classes with the Lawrence Public School District. It is concerning, though, given that more students nationally are choosing to pursue their degrees part time. That gives them more flexibility to work but delays graduation. In what I see as a related trend, the number of non-degree-seeking students, although still small at 445, has increased more than 200% since 2011.
  • Some perspective on freshman enrollment. As the university reported, the number of incoming freshmen declined 7.2% this fall. Since a peak in 2016, the number of incoming freshmen has declined by 9.5%. Even so, the total this year is 7% above that of 2011.
  • A continuing drop in transfer students. The transfer rate to KU can only be described as glum. The number of new transfers to the Lawrence and Edwards campuses was down 8.2% this year and the total fell below 1,000 students for this first time in more than a decade. The number of transfer students has fallen 32.7% since 2011, following the downward trend in community college enrollment.
  • Large growth from a few states. Since 2011, the number of students from seven states has increased by an average of 45%: Missouri (+40%), Illinois (+46%), Colorado (+47%), Nebraska (+76%), California (+33%), Oklahoma (+61%), Wisconsin (+42%). Collectively, students from those states (by headcount) make up 22% of the student body at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses. KU also attracts a considerable number of students from Texas and Minnesota, although those numbers have grown only slightly over the past 10 years.
  • Business continues to grow. Even as overall university enrollment declined, undergraduate enrollment in the School of Business rose 7.9% this year and has grown 131% since 2011. Enrollment in engineering declined 2.2% this year but is up 31.6% since 2011. Enrollment in liberal arts and sciences continues to sag. Undergraduate enrollment in the College fell 4.8% this year and is down 21% since 2011. Graduate enrollment was down only slightly less. Even so, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences still has nearly five times as many students as either business or engineering.

Where do we go from here?

Demographically over the past decade, the KU student population has become more Hispanic, more multiethnic and more female but less Kansan and less international. It is still predominantly white (68%) and is more oriented toward business and engineering. It has grown younger over the past decade, with students 22 and younger making up about 70% of the student body, compared with about 64% in 2011.

The university has about 1,500 fewer students than it did a decade ago. It has a slightly larger percentage of undergraduate students than at the start of the decade, although the proportion of undergraduates to graduate students has remained within a small range since 2000. Even so, graduate enrollment has fallen more than 14% since 2011.

I’ve written frequently about the challenges higher education faces, about the need to understand our students better, to innovate, to emphasize the human element of teaching and learning, to think about what we are preparing our students to do, and to provide a clearer sense of what higher education provides. This year’s enrollment figures simply reinforce all of that.

This is the fourth consecutive year of enrollment decline at KU and the ninth consecutive decline at the six regents universities. Those declines have become increasingly painful because of growing reliance on tuition and fees to pay the bills. In Fiscal 2019, tuition and fees accounted for more than 30% of the Lawrence campus’s $900 million in revenue. State appropriations accounted for just over 15%. In other words, students pay about $2 for every $1 the state provides. That is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future, especially with the state facing a projected $1.5 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year.

In other words, the future of the university depends greatly on enrollment. Enrollment depends greatly on the value that students and parents see in KU. It’s up to all of us to make sure they do indeed understand that value.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

Dear sleep deprived colleagues,

We ask you to take a few minutes to consider these not-so-solemn words. Full disclosure: You have all been muted for the duration of this speech.

satirical image of Abraham Lincoln in a mask near a tent on the KU campus
Abraham Lincoln was forced to cover his face after seeing this adaptation of his Gettysburg Address.

Four score and 700 years ago (or so it seems), the coronavirus brought forth on this campus a new semester, conceived in haste, cloaked in masks, and dedicated to the proposition that all Zoom meetings suck the life from us equally.

Now we are engaged in a great civil chore, testing whether this faculty and these students, or any faculty and students so distanced and so sapped of energy and so deprived of even a hint of a break, can long endure. We are met within a great white tent that reminds us every day of that chore. We have come to dedicate a portion of that tent as a final resting place for the remnants of normalcy we have all surrendered, six feet apart and clutching personal squeeze bottles of hand sanitizer, in so that this university might live.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate – we cannot commiserate with – we cannot even take a nap within – this tent. The brave instructors and students, mildly coherent or fully brain-dead, who struggled here, have already commiserated far above our poor power to whine or snap. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget that this semester was, without doubt, the longest and most challenging in … in … like forever, for crying out loud.

It is for us, the mildly conscious and highly caffeinated martyrs of alternating cohorts, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that seems fated never to be nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – coasting 500 miles, uphill, on a single wheel, to the end of the semester – that from these husks of human beings all around us we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of self-respect – that we here highly resolve that these brain-dead shall not have burned out in vain – that this university, upon a hill, shall birth a new never-ending semester – and that education of the remote, by the remote, for the remote, shall not perish from the earth.

You may unmute yourself now.

Now take a deep breath (and a nap if you need one). You can make it through the rest of the semester. — Doug Ward

P.S. Don’t forget to visit the Center for Teaching Excellence’s Flexible Teaching Guide for ideas and inspiration.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism and mass communications. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

The shift to remote teaching this semester quickly became a form of torture by isolation inflicted upon us by microscopic organisms. There has to be a bright spot somewhere, though. Right?

13 days until isolation. A carefully planned list of 1,368 VERY IMPORTANT THINGS to do during spring break dissolves before my eyes as I am enlisted to help create a website on remote teaching. In a university conference room, a dozen people stare at laptop computers. Half-a-dozen others peer out like the Brady Bunch from a videoconference screen running Zoom. I fear this is a premonition.

Jayhawk in sunglasses in front of a green computer code background from the Matrix movie
“The Matrix,” Jayhawk-style

10 days until isolation. I ponder the enormity of the task before us. All university classes will shift to a remote format. Thousands of people will hook up their brains to an electronic network, abandon a corporeal existence, and struggle to make sense of a new reality. Wait. I’ve seen that movie.

Two days until isolation. At my last physical meeting on campus, I glance at my feet and realize I am wearing two different kinds of boots. A colleague snickers. Then everyone snickers. “We’re not really laughing at you,” she says. “It’s just …” I try to look at the bright side. At least I put my boots on the right feet.

One day until isolation. I spend an hour digging through drawers and cabinets for anything I might need for working at home. I leave the office with a backpack strapped to my back, three large bags dangling from my hands and a whiteboard tucked beneath my arm. I can’t shake the feeling that I have forgotten something. My phone! Six feet behind me, the office door slams shut.

Isolation Day 1. A fog settled over Lawrence during the night. A perfect setting for the first day of remote classes. A bright spot: Candy Crush announces unlimited lives all week long.

Isolation Day 2. Laptop in lap, I sit in my living room and join a Zoom meeting. On screen, a colleague lounges on a tropical beach at an undisclosed location. Oh, wait. That’s a fake background. He probably just did that to get attention. I roll my eyes.

The inside of the Tardis from “Doctor Who”

Isolation Day 3. I scour the web for a picture of the Tardis, the police call box that the Doctor uses to traverse time and space in Doctor Who. During a time of social isolation, economic turmoil and general uncertainty, I can go anywhere and any time. Such symbolism! I set the image of the Tardis as my background in Zoom.

Isolation Day 4. “You’ll have to tell us what that background is,” a colleague says at the beginning of a Zoom meeting. Inside, part of me dies.

Isolation Day 5. I change my Zoom background to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

Isolation Day 6. I need to get groceries. I fashion a mask from a blue bandana. Then I put pull my leather outback hat down low. I giggle. I tell my wife I look like I’m getting ready to rob a stagecoach. My wife rolls her eyes. I shrug and change to a red ballcap. At the grocery store, everyone stays back well more than six feet.

Isolation Day 7. My personal care appointments fall like dominos. My dental appointment, canceled. My eye appointment, canceled. My haircut, canceled. I consider whether my out-of-control hair will eventually cover my toothless mouth. I decide it won’t matter because I won’t be able to see.

Isolation Day 8. Growing weary of working in the living room, I excavate a corner of my sons’ former bedroom for a workspace. It feels strangely familiar. A bed next to me is heaped with books, cast-off clothes, pillows, blankets, a laundry basket filled with hangers and some boxes filled with – is that a muskrat hide? I feel like I have taken refuge in a dorm room. Or is it my office?

Isolation Day 9. I gleefully plug in a smart speaker in the excavated spare bedroom I have turned into a work area. My wife unplugged the speaker in the main part of the house months ago because she thought I was always talking to myself. Now, with the door closed, I can ask it anything. Anything! I think long and hard. “Hey, Cortana. What’s the weather?” Like I really need to know.

Isolation Day 10. I set up the portable whiteboard I retrieved from my office and scrawl a list of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS in green marker. Then I brace for ultra-productivity. I envision a self-help book about VERY IMPORTANT THINGS and a tour as a motivational speaker. “How do you do it?” people will ask. I will simply hold up a green marker and say … Oh, no. Does it really say PERMANENT?

Isolation Day 11. After six hours of Zoom meetings, my laptop has fused to my lap, my headset has fused to my ears, my eyeballs hang limp, and I feel as if I have traveled into another dimension. I change my Zoom background to a glacier lagoon from Iceland and head to the refrigerator for a beer. A puddle has appeared in front of the refrigerator. Either it needs to be defrosted or it has developed incontinence. Note to self: Ask Cortana.

The fairy garden next door, with fairies and fairy dust I added

Isolation Day 12. As I venture outside, I find that the 5-year-old girl next door has created a Fairy Garden in her front lawn. I know because she has planted a sign. I take a picture, add images of fairies and send it to her mom. The message I get back: Mom likes it, but the 5-year-old wants me to know that the fairies in my picture don’t look real. I am unable to work for the rest of the day.

Isolation Day 13. Students mention feeling disconnected from their classes. I feel disconnected from the students. So I set up office hours on Zoom. No one shows up. Note to self: Remote teaching is exactly like in-person teaching.

Isolation Day 14. A green arrow appears on the sidewalk on our block. It points south. I sense symbolism.

Isolation Day 15. I walk to the end of the driveway and retrieve the morning newspaper. It’s still dark. The streets are quiet. The moon glows against patchy clouds. Birds chatter. Trees rustle. Tulips are blooming. So are the redbuds. Well, I got in a nature walk today.

Isolation Day 16. TikTok shows video after video of cats and dogs jumping over rolls of toilet paper that their owners have stacked in doorways. I am not making this up. One cat hurdles what must be at least 40 rolls of toilet paper. I look in our bathroom cabinet. Three rolls. I stack them in the doorway and hop over them. Then I put them back before my wife asks me whether I have lost my mind.

Isolation Day 17. I have worn nothing but slippers for six days. Why do I feel guilty?

Isolation Day 18. I’m afraid people will get the wrong idea. I didn’t literally mean that I wear nothing but slippers. I meant that I wear nothing but slippers on my feet. On my feet! I’m sure that’s right. If I were wrong, someone on Zoom would have told me. Wouldn’t they?

Isolation Day 19. I reach the ignominious total of 50 hours on Zoom since isolation began. I wiggle my toes in celebration.

Isolation Day 20. In an apparent act of defiance, a plastic bolt that holds down one side of the toilet seat snaps and flies into the wall. I stare. I shake my head. Then I put the lid down gently. I can’t deal with this right now.

Isolation Day 21. I have ignored my online to-do list for 18 straight days. Three feet away, the green list of VERY IMPORTANT THINGS on the whiteboard seems to animate into an evil grin. Or maybe it’s my imagination. I’m never sure anymore.

Isolation Day 22. In a webinar: Flatten the curve. In email: Flatten the curve. In the newspaper: Flatten the curve. On the radio: Flatten the curve. In my dreams: Flatten the curve. For posterity: My brain has already flattened.

Isolation Day 23. No matter how much grading I do, the amount of unread student work seems to grow. So does the strain on my back. I lapse into a daydream about Sherpas, loaded down with gear, guiding hikers on a treacherous mountain trail. I shiver and blink. What was I doing? I can’t remember. I shut down my computer.

Isolation Day 24. During a webinar, the chancellor says that more than 90% of KU employees are now working remotely. He says this while wearing a suit and tie. Does he really a suit and tie while he works from home? I’ve worn the same shirt for four days. I have absolutely no interest in wearing a tie.

Isolation Day 25. The whiteboard on which I wrote VERY IMPORTANT THINGS torments me. Somehow, none of those things are getting done, even though I used green ink. I wonder if red would help. I embark on a fruitless search for a red marker.

Isolation Day 26. My neighbor the musician has taken up drumming. I much preferred the guitar.

blue surgical masks inside a plastic bag
Surgical masks, the emblem of an era

Isolation Day 27. A large brown envelope arrives from a friend in Macau. Inside, I find a pack of disposable surgical masks. Even though my friend advised me in January to stock up on face masks and hand sanitizer, I find no “I told you so” note inside the envelope. I send a text thanking him and telling him I recently found a 32-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer selling for $19. “Ah, capitalism,” he responds.

Isolation Day 28. During a meeting, I realize that Zoom spelled backward is mooZ. The meeting suddenly takes on a new meaning.

Isolation Day 29. I place an online order at Brits, a downtown store that sells all things British. (I don’t have to explain to anyone there what the Tardis is.) I have a hankering for digestives. They know what those are, too. The owner calls me. “I’ll leave the bag on the front step and run,” she says. It’s like having a May basket delivered. Or maybe she just saw the picture of me in the mask.

Isolation Day 30. Bzzzzzz. My Fitbit (bzzzzzzz) taunts me. Bzzzzzz. Time to get up and move, it says on the screen. It shows a perky stick figure stretching and leaping. “OK, where am I supposed to go?” I snarl. My smart speaker blinks blue. “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I didn’t catch that.”

Isolation Day 31. I read that anxiety from being shut in during the coronavirus can affect mood, work habits, even concentration. I’m not sure I b

Isolation Day 32. I assess the contents of the refrigerator: five lemons, a dribble of almond milk, a container of yogurt, a bottle of beer, a bottle of salad dressing, a bottle of ketchup and two plastic containers of unknown substances. I stare dolefully. I make a list. That’s all. I just make a list.

Isolation Day 33. I take my list and drive to the grocery store. I struggle to keep my mask on. I crane my neck, bob my head and push my nose upward like a bird drinking water. The cashier tries not to notice. Instead, she points at two giant containers of animal crackers on the conveyer belt. “How are your children doing amid this chaos?” she asks. Children? Oh, I say. One lives in Seattle. The other lives in Ontario. She looks again at the containers of animal crackers. I bob my head all the way to the exit.

Isolation Day 34. I woke up 14 times last night. I couldn’t stop bobbing my head.

Isolation Day 35. It’s the middle of the night. As I lift the toilet seat, it leaps from the single remaining rod securing it to the bowl. I lurch to catch it, bobbling the seat and jamming my shin into the bowl. The lid whacks the tank and lands like a horseshoe onto a plunger beside the bowl. Ringer! The seat whacks the floor with the force of a sledgehammer. “Are you all right?” my wife calls from the bedroom. I’m not sure how to answer. (Note to reader: You may question the use of leaps and sledgehammer in describing a toilet seat. Just remember. It is the middle of the night.)

Isolation Day 36. If I multiply the number of minutes I spend in Zoom meetings by the number of participants in those meetings, it equals the number of new email messages I receive during those calls.

Zm x Zp =

I think I’m on to something big.

Isolation Day 37. The price of the Fake Me a Call Pro app has dropped to $6.49. It offers an extensive list of features, including a “custom fake call voice” and a “huge custom list of fake callers.” I imagine millions of people locked inside and fake-calling themselves. I’m not going to sleep again tonight. Am I?

Isolation Day 38. I stare at the faces in a Zoom meeting. Egads! Who is that squinty, raggedy-looking guy who desperately needs a haircut? Oh, wait. That’s me. Note to self: Apologize to colleagues for the visual fright I’ve caused.

Isolation Day 39. I have now logged more than 100 hours of Zoom meetings since seclusion began. I change my Zoom background back to the Tardis. Then I write “Change Zoom background” in green on the taunting whiteboard. Then I cross it out. For the first time in a month, I feel a sense of accomplishment.

Isolation Day Whatever. I finish grading. I should feel excited. I should feel so excited that I perform a hip-swaying dance in my slippers and post it on TikTok. Instead, I put on a mask, go to the hardware store and buy a toilet seat. Sigh. Now I have to install it.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.