Occidental strategically reacts to pandemic enrollment drop


When COVID-19 impacted nearly every aspect of daily life and closed college campuses across the nation, high school seniors were hesitant about committing to colleges or universities. Occidental switched to online instruction March 12, which, according to Vice President of Enrollment and Dean of Admissions Vince Cuseo, is an important time during the admissions and enrollment process. According to Cuseo, Occidental’s Office of Admission spent a significant portion of the Spring 2020 semester “pivoting” — adapting the admissions process to be completely virtual. While 564 and 566 first-year students enrolled in 2018 and 2019, only 402 first-year and 28 transfer students enrolled at the college for the Fall 2020 semester, with a total of 1,835 students enrolled overall.

“We’re about 10 days away from sending our admissions decisions — COVID hits us hard and all institutions in our channel sending students home — and we have to make some last-second decisions about how many students we’re going to admit,” Cuseo said.

According to Cuseo, the admissions office spends most of the fall semester on the road, visiting high schools, conducting interviews and attending college fairs. In the spring, the office makes decisions on potential student applications and invites admitted students to visit. Cuseo said the office will have to reimagine the ways it recruits students, especially current high school seniors, this fall.

“We entertained well over 1,000 students over the course of last summer with family members — that didn’t happen this summer. Now they’re going into the fall, and they will likely not have the chance to visit a college in the fall, yet they’re going to have to make a decision about where to apply,” Cuseo said. “So once again, all this information giving and receiving across prospective students and colleges will have to be done virtually.”

Without an opportunity to tour their potential colleges through campus visits, incoming students at colleges around the nation were faced with a decision: spend their first semester of college online or take time off from school with limited alternatives.

According to Cuseo, a total of 165 students who committed to Occidental at some point decided not to enroll this Fall 2020. Of these students, 98 are committed to attending next fall after a gap year.

“To start your college experience remotely, I can fully understand why some students and family members decided that that wasn’t going to be ideal and they want[ed] to start their experience in person,” Cuseo said.

Whereas some colleges across the country had restrictive policies surrounding incoming students taking gap years, Cuseo said Occidental’s deferment policy would remain as it has been.

“We felt it was appropriate, particularly in this year, to maintain our long-standing policy for gap-year students and not to coerce those students to enroll,” Cuseo said.

According to Cuseo, Occidental’s acceptance rate increased from 36.7 percent in 2019 to 41 percent in 2020. The college’s transfer student acceptance rate also increased, from 19 percent in 2018 and 16 percent in 2019, to 29 percent in 2020. In order to ensure that enough students would be enrolled for the fall semester, Cuseo said the admissions committee consulted the waitlist and extended more offers.

“We extended more offers because of COVID, but again, we know we work in a prediction business,” Cuseo said. “We have to, in admissions, do our very best to try to predict what percentage of students we admit are actually going to enroll so we don’t grossly over enroll our first-year class or under enroll.”

According to Cuseo, the next challenge for the Office of Admission will be to adapt its admissions strategy for the class of 2025, as students may not have the opportunity to conduct an official campus visit.

Student Life

Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) Finance Manager Linda Schraeder has been working with the Student Leadership, Involvement & Community Engagement (SLICE) team and Occidental’s Student Services office remotely. Schraeder said her office planned for every fall scenario — hybrid, in-person or remote — and changed programs accordingly.

Schraeder said students have been attending SLICE programming virtually, often logging in for short periods of time. According to Schraeder, though there are many disadvantages of not having students on campus, remote learning enables students to attend events with more flexibility.

“I still think it’s actually a little bit easier, to get on Zoom than to actually [go in-person],” Schraeder said. “I know a lot of the events that we’ve had, we’ve had a really good turnout.”

According to Schraeder, the Food, Energy and Sustainability Team (FEAST) garden is the only student service with student workers on-campus as both the garden and the chickens require year-round care. Other programs, like ASOC and Oxy Design Services, have been operating remotely. Schraeder said everyone is still adapting to operating and working for Occidental online.

“This is unprecedented,” Schraeder said. “No one’s ever had to face something like this. The faculty, I have to give them props, did a lot of work in the summer to provide Oxy students a better experience for fall. That’s the feedback that I’m hearing [from] some new students.”

On-campus students

Residential Education & Housing Services (REHS) has also adapted to the unforeseen circumstances of remote learning. There are only approximately 100 upperclassmen on campus, some of which are international students waiting for international travel restrictions to be lifted, and others who petitioned for housing for the school year. According to Assistant Dean of Students and Director of REHS and Student Conduct Isaiah Thomas, REHS is not receiving any additional income from upperclassmen currently living on campus. On-campus housing in the spring will largely depend on the college’s decision to resume in-person learning.

“REHS is working collaboratively with all areas of the college to begin planning for [the] spring semester,” Thomas said via email. “We will coordinate Spring housing based upon the decisions made by the working group and the College’s Senior Staff.”

Although COVID-19 has altered many students’ living situations, Thomas said he believes living on-campus is central to the Occidental experience, which is why many students still wanted to remain on campus. Prior to Occidental moving all instruction online, the college granted juniors an exemption to live off campus. Thomas said he thinks living on-campus will remain popular in the future, despite the temporary exemption.

“We are a residential college. As such, I will always believe that living on-campus will be popular for students,” Thomas said via email. “We know that many off-campus students desire to connect with their fellow students, faculty, and staff, as well as utilize on-campus resources, so I believe that when the pandemic is a part of history, students will still have a strong interest in living on-campus.”

Thomas said REHS experienced some reductions in staffing for the fall semester, including suspending the Resident Assistant (RA) program.

“We sincerely hope that we will be able to bring back RAs for Spring 2021,” Thomas said.

While their on-campus population remains small, REHS is focused on supporting students who are living off-campus nearby.

“We wanted to provide more of an effort of communicating Oxy-related information to students, as well as be able to effectively address any concerns that students and/or neighbors share with the College, given that more students are living off-campus near the College,” Thomas said via email.