Despite pandemic, UND posts overall enrollment growth

University once again boasts most-prepared freshman class and more-diverse student body

Students take a selfie in front of the Eternal Flame. Photo by Shawna Schill/UND Today.

The University of North Dakota reported this week – census time for University System institutions – that its official Fall 2020 enrollment is slightly higher than it was at the same time last year.

In fact, UND is one of only four University System institutions, and among very few regionally, that is reporting overall enrollment growth.

That’s impressive, given the challenges and uncertainties presented higher education institutions across the nation as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Robust communication efforts early on, effective implementation of COVID-resilient practices, alumni support for students in need, seamless transitions for transfer students and established online education programs that proved attractive to grad students were all cited as key reasons for UND’s enrollment growth.

In addition, UND also posted a strong retention rate among its 2019 freshman cohort of students who decided to return to the University this fall – further bolstering its fall enrollment.

According to University Analytics & Planning, UND’s retention rate for first time, fulltime freshmen, this fall, is 81.39 percent, compared to a retention rate of 78.39 percent last fall. In addition to the overall increase in retention rate, UND also is showing an increase in retention across every college/school and among student-athletes and Greek students.

Debbie Storrs

UND Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Debbie Storrs, in her update letter to faculty today, highlighted glowing accounts from students impacted by the COVID pandemic and how University faculty, in particular, worked with those students to make accommodations and improve their educational experiences.

“These students’ comments are typical and reflect the great care and commitment that our faculty have for students and their success,” Provost Storrs wrote in her letter. “It’s also why UND’s retention rate increased this year … a sincere appreciation to all our faculty!”

More good news

The good news doesn’t end there.

UND’s newest freshman class is officially the most academically prepared since the University began tracking such data. University Analytics & Planning confirmed an increase in the collective high school GPA of this fall’s freshman class compared to last fall’s cohort, which was considered, to that point, the most academically-prepared freshman class in UND history.

This fall’s GPA for incoming freshmen averaged 3.55, up from the 3.51 associated with last year’s incoming freshman GPA average.

The overall UND student body is among its most diverse ever, as well. Compared to the Fall 2019 census, UND currently is seeing an increase in students who identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African American, and Hispanic or Latinx.

Increasing the preparedness of UND students for the rigors of a college education and growing the diversity of the student body are both key tenets of the One UND Strategic Plan.

Reasons for growth

Overall, UND posted a Census Day enrollment of 13,615 for Fall Semester 2020. That’s up slightly from last fall’s final enrollment of 13,581.

Janelle Kilgore

“I think it’s a call for a huge celebration after all the effort that was put in and with all the challenges presented by the pandemic,” said Janelle Kilgore, vice provost for strategic enrollment management. “Even staying flat with enrollment would have been a huge win, but being slightly up is an even more gratifying feeling that students feel comfortable coming to our campus.”

Kilgore said that UND ramped up its outreach program to students as early as last spring to prepare them for a return to campus in the fall. The University also worked with the UND Alumni Association & Foundation to establish student-support programs, including the Angel Fund and Open Door Scholarship, for those who may have been struggling financially as a result of the pandemic.

There was technology support for students as well.

“We’ve implemented a new ‘Laptops for Learning’ program as a way to help students navigate all of these crazy waters, in which they might be struggling financially or with technology, to be successful in their education,” Kilgore said.

Communications efforts throughout the summer months, led by the Division of Marketing & Communications, also can’t be overstated as far as engendering confidence among new and returning students.

Meloney Linder

“We were aggressively sharing our COVID-response planning and how we wanted to reopen campus so that it would be as COVID-resistant as possible,” said Vice President for Marketing & Communications Meloney Linder. “When we started doing that, we started seeing increases in our numbers of students confirming that they were coming – so I think that played a role as well.”

Kilgore pointed specifically to increases in the number of students transferring to UND from other institutions and graduate students, particularly online grad students, as key drivers in the University’s growth.

Increases in transfer students are up because of new and established articulation agreements with other regional institutions and efforts of UND advisors to make the transfer process as seamless as possible, Kilgore said.

Chris Nelson

“Our online grad students are up, as well, and that may be because individuals may have lost their jobs (as a result of the pandemic) and they might be using this time to retool their education,” she added.

UND’s overall graduate enrollment, this fall, is 3,304 students, which is a record, up nearly 400 students from the fall 2019 School of Graduates Studies’ enrollment of 2,909 students. UND’s graduate enrollment also set a record in the Spring Semester, earlier this year, according to Chris Nelson, associate dean of the UND School of Graduate Studies.

“Establishing a new enrollment record one semester after breaking our previous record—is the very satisfying result of the efforts of so many across campus to make our high quality campus and online graduate programs not only welcoming and attractive to prospective students but also programs that students want to stay in once they’ve started,” Nelson said. “These combined efforts to successfully recruit and retain students promise a bright future for graduate education at UND.”

Kilgore also lauded UND’s bump in retention rates for returning students.

“That is really exciting, too, as it speaks to our current students wanting to come back and pursue their degree during a time of great unknowns,” she said.

Inside the numbers:


Total Undergraduate Headcount: 2019 – 10,163; 2020 – 9,796; -367; -3.61%

Total Graduate Headcount: 2019 – 2,909; 2020 – 3,304; 395; 13.58%

Total LAW Headcount: 2019 – 206; 2020 – 219; 13; 6.31%

Total MED Headcount: 2019 – 303; 2020 – 296; -7; -2.31%

Total Headcount: 2019 – 13,581; 2020 – 13,615; 34; 0.25%

New Students Only

New Freshmen Headcount: 2019 – 1,673; 2020 – 1,614; -59; -3.53%

New Transfer Headcount: 2019 – 906; 2020 – 956; 50; 5.52%

New Graduate Headcount: 2019 – 737; 2020 – 796; 59; 8.01%

New LAW Headcount: 2019 – 85; 2020 – 81; -4; -4.71%

New MED Headcount: 2019 – 77; 2020 – 67; -10; -12.99%

Total New Student Headcount: 2019 – 3,478; 2020 – 3,514; 36; 1.04%