NATCHITOCHES, La. (KTAL/KMSS) – Northwestern State University is offering retirement packages to eligible employees to avoid layoffs amid declining enrollment blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university sent an email to all classified/civil service and tenured faculty informing them of the plan, which they drafted in response to a projected decrease in enrollment on April 28.

“Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has been uneven, and challenges for low-income students, students of color, and first-generation students continue to persist,” NSU President Dr. Marcus Jones. “Nation-wide, more than 1 million fewer students are enrolled in college now than before the COVID-19 began.”

Before the COVID pandemic, NSU says enrollment numbers were growing consistently. They say factors like affordability, small classes, varied course delivery methods, nationally ranked academic programs, and excellent student services were a draw for students.

According to NSU, the school has the highest graduation rate of students who receive Pell Grants in the state. They also boast a high percentage of Hispanic students for rural-serving institutions in Louisiana.

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that U.S. colleges and universities saw a drop of nearly 500,000 undergraduate students in the fall of 2021, continuing a historic decline that began in the fall of 2021, a pattern mirrored at NSU.

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Jones said faculty and staff reductions would focus on retirement incentives and not hiring new personnel for positions in the school’s budget but not filled.

According to NSU Director of Enrollment, Jana Lucky, there are more hybrid students or those who have more online courses than those showing up for face-to-face courses.

“Hybrid is actually the largest population,” Lucky said. “For example with preregistered students for fall 2022, we have 3,958 students registered. Of those 1,605 are hybrid and 808 are entirely face-to-face.”

Lucky also says that students who participate in on-campus events such as student-athletics, cheerleading, marching units, and theater are growing.

“Those students are all here on campus in one capacity or another. Those groups have not gotten smaller. They have actually grown.”

NSU’s Development Office has increased efforts to secure funding for scholarships and develop relationships with industry partners to provide scholarships and internships to students in their respective fields of study. They also announced an affiliation with the University Economic Development Association, which connects universities and private sector businesses to facilitate growth in their communities.

“The university’s impact and prominent role in higher education and public service in the region remains enormous even as we face the national enrollment decline and initiate actions to address it,” Jones said.