The number of students attending college in New Jersey is down significantly compared to fall 2019, right before the coronavirus pandemic moved in.

Many colleges and universities in the Garden State experienced a dip in student-body sizes in both 2020 and 2021, but they don't expect this to be the start of a long-term trend.

"We are optimistic that the decline we experienced in both fall of '21 and fall of '20 is a blip," said Bob Heinrich, chief enrollment management officer for Stockton University. "We're seeing an applicant pool for the fall of '22 that is higher than pre-pandemic levels."

According to figures from the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, total enrollment at public colleges and universities in the state fell by 3.1% in fall 2021, compared to 2020, after dipping by 0.7% the year prior. Private institutions experienced a dip of more than 3.5% over the two years, while community colleges saw their enrollment numbers drop by more than 18%.

The pandemic not only impacted the appeal or availability of college life; it cut into schools' ability to recruit students at remote events, or invite prospective students and families onto campus.

"Last year, students were so overwhelmed with remote learning that they really didn't know what their first year was going to look like," said Chris Romano, vice president for enrollment management and student affairs at Ramapo College.

Applications from wannabe freshmen are up 5% at Ramapo compared to last year, Romano said. And the demand for in-person tours and visits is at an all-time high.

Georgian Court University has already sent out 300 more acceptance letters this year compared to last. May 1 has been designated nationally as the deadline for students to choose which school they'd like to attend and make a deposit.

"We're expecting to rebound with steady enrollment growth beginning in the fall of 2022," said Chris Krzak, GCU's vice president for enrollment management and retention.

The number of applications and deposits is higher right now compared to a year ago for Montclair State University. MSU actually experienced increases in its freshmen population over the past couple of years, but undergraduate enrollment overall was down, as the pandemic prompted many of the university's students to pause or end their postsecondary education.

Numbers released this month by the New Jersey Department of Education show that 72% of high-schoolers who graduated in 2019 attended a postsecondary school in the fall after graduation. The rate was 67.3% for the Class of 2020, and 67.7% for the Class of 2021.

Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, suggests the share of high-school grads who attend college will remain fairly constant. And New Jersey's numbers may see a boost from generous financial aid programs that offer up to 4 years tuition-free for students of a certain income.

"The financial barrier's not there anymore," Van Horn said.

Dino Flammia is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com

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