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Arizona universities' enrollment increases, bucking nationwide trends

Overall enrollment at Arizona universities increased this year, bolstered by students who are taking classes all online.

The COVID-19 pandemic created massive changes for higher education, which many feared could spell financial devastation, especially for institutions that already were experiencing enrollment declines.

Nearly 205,000 students are now enrolled at Arizona's three public universities, a 4.5% increase over last year, according to a newly released report by the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the public universities.

Grand Canyon University, a private Christian college in Phoenix, saw its enrollment increase on campus and online this year. About 23,000 students now enroll at its ground campus, and more than 90,000 in its online programs.

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Online students now account for nearly one-third of students in the public university system here. Nearly 54,000 of Arizona State University's students take classes online, about 39% of its student body.

The number of students from historically underrepresented populations, including students who are Black, Hispanic or Indigenous, increased by nearly 9% since last fall across the three public universities, the report said.

The public universities saw a 1.6% increase in the number of Arizona resident students who enrolled this year.

But the numbers aren't all positive: Northern Arizona University's enrollment decreased. The number of undergraduates on campus at the three universities decreased this year. And the number of first-time students also declined, by 3.6%. International enrollment also was affected by pandemic travel restrictions and visa changes at the federal level.

Colleges face major financial headwinds beyond the current pandemic. Arizona's birth rate has declined, which may affect the number of incoming students in years to come. And the state's level of educational attainment lags the national average.

Nationally, some colleges have seen enrollment drops because of the pandemic, although the full picture of the pandemic's effects on higher education aren't yet clear. The pandemic hit after several years of enrollment declines in higher education. Community colleges have also seen drops

The Maricopa County Community College District has not yet responded to inquiries about its enrollment numbers this semester.

In some states, colleges did not return to classes in person, opting instead for fully online courses. Arizona's universities returned this fall to in-person classes, with online options. This likely attracted some students who prefer learning in person but also led to thousands of COVID-19 cases

Larry Penley, the chairman of the Arizona Board of Regents, attributed the enrollment growth to universities' work to put protocols in place that allowed students to return to campus, as well as the strong track record in online education for students who opted to take classes from home.

Still, the universities' financial health — and the state's — will require more robust enrollment in higher education, Penley said. The universities have increasingly relied on tuition dollars from out-of-state and international students to finance operations in the absence of strong state support, he said.

"We have to have a culture in Arizona that endorses post-secondary education, including higher education and our community colleges. Unless we do that, we position this state for failure down the road. We will lose jobs to Utah, to Texas, to Colorado.

"This is not where we want to be as a state of Arizona," Penley said. 

Here's where each university stands on enrollment.

Arizona State University

ASU's online programs grew significantly this year, boosting its overall enrollment.

The university now enrolls the equivalent of about 117,492 full-time students, the regents' report says.

Online undergraduate enrollment increased by more than 20% this year. The school now has about 41,000 undergraduates enrolled online and nearly 14,000 graduate students online.

Total undergraduate enrollment increased 7.1%, and total graduate enrollment increased 8.4%.

The number of first-time undergraduates decreased this year at ASU, as it did at all three public universities.

University of Arizona 

The University of Arizona saw both its undergraduate and graduate enrollment increase, including an increase in the number of online students.

The university's total enrollment is the equivalent of 45,453 full-time students.

UA's online enrollment numbers this year don't include its acquisition of Ashford University, which is expected to boost online programs through a new venture called University of Arizona Global Campus.

Enrollment among undergraduates increased 2.3%, while enrollment among graduate students increased 3.1%.

Online enrollment increased nearly 45% this year: Nearly 4,000 undergraduates and nearly 3,000 graduate students are enrolled online.

Northern Arizona University

Of the three public universities, NAU is the only one to see an overall decline in enrollment. This comes after two years of enrollment concerns at NAU, which saw its first enrollment decline in 14 years in 2019.

The university has the equivalent of 27,985 full-time students enrolled, the regents' report says.

The number of undergraduates at NAU declined by nearly 5% this year. 

More than 20% of NAU's students are in online programs. More than 5,000 students enrolled in online degree programs this year, an increase of more than 7%. About 70% of those enrolled online are undergraduates.

Graduate enrollment increase by 2.7% year over year.

Grand Canyon University

GCU's incoming class was its largest ever, about 8,200 students, according to university spokesman Bob Romantic.

Total enrollment on its ground campus in west Phoenix is 23,000, up from 22,000 last year. However, the includes about 4,900 ground campus students who decided to take classes online this fall, at least half of whom are expected to return to campus in the spring, Romantic said.

Online, enrollment grew 7.5% over last year, bringing the total number of online students to more than 90,000, he said.

GCU President Brian Mueller has attributed the growth to students interested in an affordable private Christian education. Tuition on the Phoenix campus has not increased in 13 years. He also said students like the college's community atmosphere.

Additionally, students are confident in the university's ability to hold classes both in person and online, since GCU has a track record of doing so that precedes the pandemic, Mueller has said.

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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