Enrollment Dips, Spirit Climbs

Seeing packed stands cheering at Union's annual dodgeball championship and a sea of volunteers in matching shirts for Project Impact, the college's annual community service event, it might be hard for an observer to believe Union College has fewer students than last fall's 24-year high. With a total of 914 students and a full-time equivalence of 847.5, Union's enrollment for fall 2008 is similar to the fall of 2003 and far ahead of the mid-1990s when Union averaged 500-600 students. Students from 46 states and 26 countries chose Union this year, including 166 first time freshmen.

"If you have been listening to the stories of the students who come here, then you know God is leading and blessing both the students and Union College," said David Smith, college president. "The spirit of the students is amazing and every program and event I've been to so far this year has been exceptional because of their spirit."

When asked why they chose Union, incoming freshmen mentioned finding balance in their social lives, spirituality and learning. "Union wasn't too big and it wasn't too small," said Keri Skau, a freshman chemistry major from Oroville, Calif. "I liked the spiritual atmosphere, and Union was friendly."

"I prayed about finding a college," said Robinson Aigbokhan, a freshman biology major from Nigeria, "I liked how the campus atmosphere would keep me academically focused."

One reason the student involvement in campus activities is strong this year is that, while enrollment is down, dormitory occupancy is slightly higher than last year. Topher Thompson, a sophomore business administration major from Lincoln, Neb., chose to live on campus instead of at home. He attributes his move to the community created in a dorm environment. "Dorm life gets you out of the house and experiencing new things and meeting new people," Thompson said. "Social interaction is through the roof. And for studying, my classmates live just down the hall."

According to Rob Weaver, vice president for enrollment and student financial services, many factors led college administrators to expect lower enrollment this year. One main reason is a new approach to financial aid. "We reviewed our financial aid system last year and changed it to concentrate less on a front-loaded freshman package and more on helping student be successful in the long run," Weaver said. "We expected a dip for this year, but the changes made will improve retention, making it easier for students to finance all four years and complete their degrees."

Other factors include a weak economy and the rising cost of transportation, which may have influenced students to choose a community college or state university closer to home. However, the economy only intensifies demographic trends according to Weaver who cited data gathered by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

"In the Great Plains, we are nearly a decade into what could be called a demographic recession," Weaver said. "There are fewer high school graduates in our core markets now than 10 years ago or will likely be for another 10 years. We've already seen the effects of this in falling enrollments in the Seventh-day Adventist school system at the elementary and high school levels and the result has been school closings and consolidations. This means we're working harder than ever to bring kids to Nebraska and Union College."