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COVID Cuts Freshman Class by 20%

Students worshipping at McCully Stadium during the first All School Communion in August 25, 2020 (The Wheaton Record/Ada Yuan)

Wheaton’s admissions numbers declined significantly this fall, with freshman admission falling roughly 20 percent from last year. This mirrors a national trend of decreased enrollment due to COVID-19.

Over the past three years, incoming classes have averaged 600 freshmen and around 50 transfers. According to numbers released by the admissions office, 483 students comprise the class of 2024, down from 616 in the class of 2023. The number of transfers, at 53, adheres to the three-year average. 

In addition to decreased freshman enrollment, many students across all years have opted to study remotely rather than return to campus. Chief Enrollment Management Officer Silvio Vazquez says that just under 10 percent of Wheaton undergraduates, 219 out of 2,234 students, are studying remotely this semester. The large majority of these are returning students, with only 27 remote freshmen and transfers.

According to Vazquez, the spread of COVID-19 in the spring inhibited the usual recruitment strategies, forcing the admissions office to transition to virtual methods. “It took a real, emotional toll on us because this is what we do and we do it because we want to see students who God calls to Wheaton,” Vazquez said. “But then when we had to go virtual, we believe we did a good job pivoting to virtual.”

According to statistics compiled by the admissions office, the shrinking of the freshman class seems to have affected most demographics proportionally. The percentage of students coming from Christian schools and public schools did not significantly change from previous years. However, the proportion of ethnic minority students rose to 32 percent from 30 percent last year. 

Diversity and High School Background Statistics from “Wheaton College: First Year and Transfer Students 2020-2021”

The decline in enrollment poses a significant financial challenge to the college. According to Student Financial Services, 2020-2021 tuition for students taking 12 to 18 credit hours totals $39,100. Without taking into account financial aid and tuition discounts, this year’s decreased enrollment could represent a loss approximating $20 million over four years.

For some incoming students doing remote learning, the beginning of the school year has been bittersweet. Freshman Grace Lee decided to stay at home to protect older members of her family from exposure to COVID-19. She said it was hard to watch others taking part in a more traditional college experience. “Although this is a safer choice, it is definitely tough to see my fellow freshman friends getting to decorate their dorms, going to classes in-person and meeting new people,” said Lee. 

Many freshmen attending on campus cited the value of being physically present in the community as a key factor in their decision.

“I don’t think it would be easy to make friends online,” said Ashley Bowman, a freshman communications major. She said that even with the extra rules and regulations, she has enjoyed her experience so far. “I’ve been trying to stay positive about all of the changes and focus on the fact that it’s not necessarily for me — wearing masks is to protect other people and not myself.”

A student is talking to a dining services employee while wearing a mask and social distancing in Anderson Commons during orientation week (The Wheaton Record/Ada Yuan)

Enoch Lui, a freshman from Hong Kong, said his visa arrived two days before departing for Wheaton. 

“I wanted to adapt to a brand new culture and bond with diversified brothers and sisters in Christ as soon as possible,” Lui wrote in an email.

Conservatory freshman Anna Hoffland said that the restrictions are a small price to pay for the in-person benefits. “Even though band and choir aren’t the same, a lot of good things can come out of the restrictions too.”

The limitations placed on vocalists and wind players do not prevent Hoffland from seeing the advantages of attending Wheaton in person. She is appreciating singing in Women’s Chorale, even with rehearsals taking place outside and the singers standing 10 to 15 feet apart on Armerding Quad.

“I’m still enjoying singing with a big group of girls, even though we’re 10 feet apart and it’s a little hard to hear,” Hoffland explained. “But it’s in the challenges that we’re going to learn and grow in ways that we wouldn’t if we weren’t facing these challenges.”

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