At a time when college enrollment is falling nationally, tentative early figures indicate Old Dominion University's enrollment has increased.
ODU enrolled 24,233 students for the fall semester, a 2.5% increase over last fall.
Like many other universities, ODU had anticipated a drop in enrollment because of economic fallout from the pandemic. Higher education think-tanks had predicted a decrease in enrollment nationally of anywhere from 5% to 20%.
While final enrollment figures will not be tabulated until later, the University's enrollment is on track to surpass last year.
President John R. Broderick credited administrators, faculty and staff from across campus for the increase.
"It's significant that we've been able to grow our overall enrollment, as well as our online and graduate populations, at an extremely challenging time for higher education," President Broderick said.
"I credit our dedicated faculty and staff, who worked hard to increase enrollment in both the summer and fall semesters.
"While we can't name everyone who deserves credit, several departments, including admissions, financial aid, online learning and the Graduate School, deserve recognition for their diligence and commitment."
ODU saw increases at all levels, including freshman enrollment, which ticked up 1% to 3,169.
Gains were also made among graduate students. ODU has 4,578 graduate students, up 4% from last year, and they are taking 5% more classes than a year ago. New graduate student enrollment is up 11.5%.
"Upticks in graduate enrollment often occur during uncertain times as individuals seek new career opportunities," said Robert Wojtowicz, vice provost and dean of the graduate school. "Our graduate program directors worked especially hard during the pandemic to turn applications around quickly and to streamline requirements, including waiving or eliminating some required standardized test scores."
Jane Dané, associate vice president for enrollment management, credits a bold decision to dramatically increase the number of online courses to meet expected demand and a concerted outreach effort to new and continuing students for the University's ability to attract more students.
She said ODU's online program was largely responsible for a 14% increase in classes taken during the recent summer session at a time when national enrollment was basically flat.
Dané said because ODU already has such a large and successful online program - it is the largest program among public schools in Virginia and is ranked No. 1 in the state by onlinecolleges.com - transitioning hundreds of classes online was virtually seamless.
Dané said when the pandemic began last spring, ODU officials listened to students and their families and realized the demand for online classes would greatly increase. ODU quickly moved many courses online. ODU also created hybrid courses which can be taken in person but are also available online.
As a result, 58% of ODU students are taking classes fully online, including 40% of all freshmen. Last fall, ODU offered 1,096 courses online, or about 28.6% of those available. This fall, 3,136 courses, or 75.3%, are online while 517 (12%) are hybrid classes.
Dané said ODU's academic and research reputation, affordability and diversity also helped the University attract more students. ODU is the least expensive of Virginia's public research doctoral universities, and the University has not raised tuition the last two years.
ODU Online, which began 26 years ago as a satellite distance learning center, has about 150 employees, including creative writers, graphic designers, artists, instructional technologists and multimedia experts, among others, who work with professors to make courses interactive.
Classes include some traditional lectures, but also videos, photos, graphics and interactive discussion groups and projects that make online classes and labs as close as possible to physically being there.
"We create a wonderful educational environment for the students by having people craft classes who understand how people think and learn," said Andy Casiello, the University's associate vice president for distance learning. "Online learning is one of the major cores to how we operate."
ODU's Instructional Technology Services Department, headed by Associate Vice President Rusty Waterfield, worked long hours this summer updating technology in dozens of classrooms so that more classes could go online or be broadcast as hybrid courses, Casiello said.
ODU also intensified recruiting efforts at a time when high school and transfer students could not make campus visits. Potential students were invited to take virtual tours of campus, and ODU held numerous online sessions for students to interact with staff and faculty online.
Dané said ODU's large team of success coaches was another key factor in helping students decide to enroll here.
"They helped students from the time they were considering their options all the way through registration and the start of classes," Dané said. "We communicated with the students whenever things changed, and students have indicated to us that the communication really helped them."
Hundreds of faculty and staff members also volunteered during the summer to make thousands of calls to returning and admitted ODU students to see if they had questions or needed help.
"We had volunteers from across campus - faculty, staff, students, the athletic department, administrators," said Don Stansberry, interim vice president of student engagement & enrollment services.
"It truly was a campus community effort. That was impactful in helping the students at a really important time, at the end of July, when they were trying to make good decisions about their options."
Receiving a call meant a lot to Michael Guevara, a freshman from Chesapeake's Deep Creek High School. He had already decided to enroll at ODU but said the personal touch from such a large University was impressive.
"If I had been undecided at the time, that certainly would have cemented my decision," he said.