Morgan Kalisek’s hometown college said just the right thing to hook her.

“Women’s intercollegiate flag football.”

Kalisek, of Fremont, Nebraska, has played plenty of organized flag and tackle football. Midland University announced this month that it would develop an NAIA flag football team for women in 2020-21.

Kalisek considered attending the University of Nebraska at Omaha, but the chance to play football in the city where she grew up proved an offer she couldn’t resist. “I just grew up playing sports, and I just always had a passion for it,” she said.

Creating a women’s NAIA football program is unusual, but colleges and universities throughout the Midwest and nationwide this spring are seeking ways to reel students in. They worry enrollment will plummet in the fall. The University of Nebraska system, for instance, has pledged free tuition to families with income below $60,000.

The coronavirus pandemic has upended expectations for the fall term, and universities want an edge on their competitors. This means offering new scholarship programs, providing free tuition, discounting residence hall rooms, offering a variety of ways to attend and, in Midland’s case, making women’s flag football an intercollegiate sport.

Fall enrollment is a wild card because it’s not clear how intrusive the pandemic will be by August and September. Some students might wait on their decisions until they absolutely must commit.

Will classes be held on campus? Many Midwestern colleges say they will be, but how will they be organized for appropriate social distancing? Will students and parents feel confident that on-campus programs will be safe? Will there be football in the fall? If there is another intense wave of coronavirus, will students have to return home?

Higher education analysts say some students might take a “gap year,” or a break from school. Many in higher education also wonder how severely virus concerns, visa and travel problems, and politics will affect the enrollment of international students.

At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Iowa State and many other large universities, international students make up 10% of the enrollment. And many pay full tuition.

“There are real concerns from colleges and universities throughout the country about what the enrollment numbers are going to look like this fall,” said Thomas Harnisch, vice president for government relations with Colorado-based State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. “It’s difficult to know right now.”

Based on surveys of students, enrollments at four-year colleges could drop 20%, according to the national research and marketing group SimpsonScarborough.

Terry Hartle, senior vice president with the American Council on Education, estimated a 15% decline.

“We’ve never seen the enrollment uncertainty that we are currently facing,” Hartle said. In past economic downturns, he said, enrollment has risen because students have used unemployment to gain new skills or finish degrees.

But safety concerns added to financial duress could prove enough to compel students to wait and see. While many colleges, such as UNL and Creighton, plan to hold classes on campus in the fall, “the key word is ‘plan,’ ” Hartle said. “Because nobody is absolutely certain that they’ll be able to do that.”

The huge California State University system recently announced that it would stick with online coursework in the fall.

At UNL and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, leaders say they are pleased that summer online enrollments look much better than last summer’s.

And some Midwestern schools even expressed optimism about the fall. Midland University reported a big bump in deposits made by prospective new students — 289 as of May 19, up from 178 the same date last year.

Concordia University of Seward reported a slight increase in new-student deposits compared to last year at this time.

But in budget-setting scenarios, UNL has prepared for a single-digit drop in enrollment. And the Rev. Daniel Hendrickson, president of Creighton University, said last week in a letter to faculty and staffers: “Like most U.S. institutions of higher learning, we are projecting radically lower enrollments.”

Mary Chase, Creighton’s vice provost of enrollment, later said she anticipated about a 15% decline in the university’s number of new undergraduate students.

Hartle said the pandemic will accelerate trends that were already underway. He expects New England, upstate New York, the Rust Belt, the Great Plains and the upper Midwest generally to endure tough enrollment challenges. But that will vary by school, he said.

Here are some of the ways colleges seek to entice students:

Tuition breaks and other discounts

The NU system’s “Nebraska Promise” pledges free tuition to low- and middle-income families. The University of Nebraska at Kearney has announced a new single-room dormitory option in which students will pay $300 less than in the past to upgrade to a one-person room. This also reflects the certainty that UNK residence halls won’t be packed with students.

Hook ’em this summer

Nebraska Wesleyan freshmen take a course in the fall called the Archway Seminar, which exposes them to college-level writing, research and presentations. The teachers of those classes will connect with students this summer by videoconference so they can get acquainted and build bonds. UNL has offered a new “Husker Starter Pack” to incoming freshmen so they can get started on a class this summer at an approximately 60% discount for in-state students.

Let them take their time

UNO, UNL and Creighton are among universities that moved their deposit deadlines from May 1 to June 1 to give students more time. Union College has moved its “priority deadline” for choosing classes from May 1 to June 1. And for a deposit refund, the University of Northern Iowa in the past has required students to cancel by May 1. UNI has moved that date to Aug. 1.

Give them options, be flexible

Schools know there will be students who don’t want online classes. They also know some would prefer online classes to the risk of studying on campus. Northern Iowa plans to reopen with in-person classes in the fall, but it has created a “start at home” option for those who want to begin the school year online.

UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green has talked about “hybrid” classes that use online teaching part of the time and in-person classes the rest of the time. Green also has talked about accommodating international students hung up in visa and travel snags to arrive on campus midway through the semester.

New programs, new classes

This summer UNL has rolled out new classes created by professors, including courses on Nebraska flooding, pandemic news in the age of social media, a virtual tour of Africa and how to be happy in college. For the past several years, Midland has aimed to connect with students through performing arts and especially sports. Midland’s 32 intercollegiate sports were the most offered by a Nebraska college. Women’s flag football is No. 33. Morgan Kalisek was the first woman to commit to the program.

Our best staff photos of May 2020, 402-444-1123

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