For Zac Nobis, a biology major and football player from Bryan, Ohio, completing classes and labs in person was key to a successful 2020-21 academic year at Bluffton University.
“Being on campus allowed me to ask questions right then and there in the lab,” Nobis said. “That’s been huge for me and my peers. I feel like working in community really benefits us all.”
Bluffton’s ability to adapt during the pandemic improved educational outcomes for many students and attracted a large incoming class.
“Young people recognized and appreciated Bluffton’s commitment to maintaining relationships and our focus on the financial realities of their families,” said Robin Bowlus, vice president of advancement and enrollment management.
That recognition is being rewarded with the prospect of record enrollment.
As of mid-August, Bluffton had 295 deposited and 269 enrolled first-year students for the fall 2021 semester. For context, Bluffton’s first-year class a year ago on Census Day in mid-September was 195. If the incoming first-year class holds for this fall’s Census Day, Bluffton’s total enrollment will have increased by about 100 students over the last three years.
Bowlus attributes the recruitment success to two factors: a comprehensive health campaign and a financial aid initiative designed to help middle-income families impacted by COVID-19.
Inspired by Bluffton mascots J. Denny and Jenny Beaver, the university’s #ProtectTheDam plan featured policies for mask wearing, social distancing and health monitoring. It was key to the ability to remain in-person for living and learning during the entire 2020-21 academic year.
Bluffton opened campus to prospective students and their families in May 2020, well before many colleges returned to offering in-person visits. Virtual tours also remained available.
“Bluffton’s size and ability to adapt ensured students would be able to have a relatively normal college experience compared to many of their peers who were sitting either in their bedrooms at home or in their dorm rooms doing college mainly behind a screen,” Bowlus said.
Bluffton allowed students to have a roommate and maintained a full schedule of athletics and music performance, with robust safety measures.
“Completing the spring 2020 semester at home was an isolating experience for many of our students,” Bowlus said. “We knew that allowing students to build and maintain connections with their classmates in a safer environment would improve many aspects of their lives, but most important, their mental health.”
One key to enrollment success, the Bluffton Award, recognizes financial difficulties due to COVID-19. It closes the financial gap for families who are just above eligibility for state and federal aid or need-based grants.
“Many families in this income bracket were small businesspeople — restaurant owners, beauticians — who truly felt the financial impact of COVID-19,” Bowlus said.
Twenty percent of the incoming class is eligible for the award, which varies based on student need and is renewable for four years.