JACKSONVILLE — Bailey Harper knew she would attend Jacksonville State University one day.
The 17-year-old Jacksonville High School senior has always lived here, watching older students graduate and drive a few miles up Alabama 21 to start their college careers. Now she’s making that trip herself, though in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken away her senior prom and a timely commencement ceremony — the high school plans to hold 2020 graduation July 23, more than two months away — but she’s still upbeat. She’s going to start her marketing degree, pandemic or not.
“I’ve been here my whole life, and now that I’m actually going to be able to go to school here, I’m really excited,” Harper said through the window of her silver sedan, parked beside Pete Mathews Coliseum on Saturday morning.
Like more than 130 other incoming freshmen, Harper had arrived at a drive-thru beside the coliseum parking lot to pick up “Future Gamecock” signs distributed by the university Office of Admissions.
School mascot Cocky danced alongside a row of cars that snaked from Alabama 204 into the parking lot, feathers a shock of red in the bright, beaming sunshine. Around noon the temperature would hit a sweltering 87 degrees, but at 10:30, the big bird showed no signs of being baked. Admissions staff delivered signs and scholarship certificates to freshmen as they drove through, often accompanied by parents and friends. The social-distance improvisation was appreciated.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” Harper said, her sign propped up in the back seat, upside-down. “But I think it’s cool that they’re still giving us this opportunity to have our signs, to have what other seniors have had in the past.”
‘A very positive outlook’
The program, which started just a year ago, was a means to make moving on to college life more exciting for incoming freshmen. Scholarships and signs were awarded at in-school ceremonies throughout the county last year, but that kind of personal touch wasn’t possible with schools closed. Instead, staff will travel to another eight locations over the next week, as close as Oxford and as far-flung as Montgomery and Rome, Ga., to get the signs to students.
Emily Messer, vice president for enrollment management at JSU, said that as many as 600 students will get signs before the campaign ends this year. And, in spite of the strain from the pandemic on families, businesses and schools nationwide, enrollment is higher this summer than the last.
“We’ve experienced hurdles that we’ve never experienced before in the enrollment world, in higher education — or even the world in general,” Messer, who worked at the event, said by phone Friday. “But this summer, enrollment is actually up, about 9 percent over last year. That’s a very positive outlook, and we’re excited about that university wide.”
Admissions officers across the nation are reporting an average decrease of enrollment by about 20 percent, she said. It had been slow to pick up at JSU, too, she said, but the last month has seen numbers pick up to reach levels comparable to April-May of prior years. There was also a boost when acting university President Don Killingsworth announced plans for in-person classes in the fall semester, she said.
But earning a near-normal fall and better-than-average summer hasn’t been simple. Schools aren’t open for face-to-face recruiting sessions, and events like preview day — normally held on-campus to introduce prospective students to the university — had to be held online this year (though Messer noted that it had higher attendance than usual). But the admissions team has turned to social media, she said, and some innovative approaches, like the sign drive-thru, that seem to be working.
Messer said the summer boost might have been influenced by a few factors; the school waived its distance learning fees for the semester, she said, and offers some new classes that have caught attention, like a Harry Potter-themed English course.
According to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, a national organization of higher education recruiters, enrollment trends have been difficult to spot, with mixed results from a member survey in April.
Institutions reporting an upswing for summer, like JSU, represent just 7 percent of the 262 responding universities. Meanwhile, 54 percent had seen a decrease. Most schools, 45 percent, also reported a decrease from typical fall semester enrollment totals, though 24 percent had seen an increase.
Looking to the future
Students at the drive-thru, such as Maggie Hawkins, an 18-year old graduate of the Darlington School in Rome, Ga., said they hadn’t considered putting their college plans on hold. Like most other seniors, the pandemic had cost her part of her last school year.
“I’ve kind of gotten over it,” said Hawkins, who enrolled in JSU’s nursing program. “I’m just looking forward to the times that are coming.”
Her mother, Kim Hawkins, had driven them in their SUV that morning. Kim said she’d been a student at the school from 1979-80, before transferring back to Georgia and becoming a nurse. She’d always had a soft spot for the campus, she said, and suggested it to her daughter.
“Yes, it’s sad,” Kim said. “But I think in a few years we won’t even think about it. It will be a bump in the road and something she can talk about to her kids and grandkids. Now, we’re just looking to the future.
“Everything is going to be OK.”