James Paul became increasingly anxious as the coronavirus spread in hard-hit New Rochelle, N.Y., where he attended college.

“It was one of the worst places to be in the world at one point,” said Paul, of Maplewood, N.J.

Now, he doesn’t want to go back and is considering transferring to Stockton University in Galloway Township.

Ten New Jersey universities, including Stockton, hope they can persuade more of the 120,000 Garden State students who attend college elsewhere to come home, too.

Their plea comes as freshman deposits were down at some schools by double-digit percentages as the traditional May 1 deadline passed. Stockton was down 17% and Rowan University 16%, though the percentages were changing daily, and the schools — like many others in the region — extended their deadlines to give families more time to decide.

Rowan University president Ali A. Houshmand
Rowan University president Ali A. Houshmand

“It clearly shows that people are anxious,” said Ali A. Houshmand, Rowan’s president, whose school also is asking students to return and aid New Jersey’s recovery.

Their experience was no outlier. As uncertainty about the fall continues to swirl, freshmen deposits were down at other schools, too. It’s too soon to know about returning students. If deposits stay down, that could mean millions in lost revenue and a scramble to plug holes in budgets.

Drexel University, which is still accepting applications, reported its first-year full-time enrollment was 20% behind target. The university’s deposits had been trending on par with last year until April 1, said Niki Gianakaris, a spokesperson. That date coincided with the start of on-campus visits for admitted students, which the school was not able to hold, she said.

Rutgers and Pennsylvania State University — large flagship schools — were down about 6% from the prior year.

Penn State president Eric Barron said 5,800 students had requested an extension to June 1, which could mean more will enroll.

Rutgers said it also was continuing to accept applications and admit students.

Deposits for freshmen were lagging at Widener University in Chester, too, which on Tuesday sent its furry mascots to greet 64 accepted students at their homes in Delaware County. Most of them had not yet committed to attending.

Vinnie Kalodner is greeted by Widener Mascots Kevin DeSimone, center, and Morgan Kent, right, who are visiting the homes of Delaware County students who were accepted to Widener University in the fall.
JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Vinnie Kalodner is greeted by Widener Mascots Kevin DeSimone, center, and Morgan Kent, right, who are visiting the homes of Delaware County students who were accepted to Widener University in the fall.

“Part of our intent in making the visits is to let them know we’d love to welcome them to Widener for the fall,” said spokesperson Mary Allen.

Some universities, including St. Joseph’s and La Salle, declined to provide deposit numbers because they had extended the deadline. (Widener also declined to provide a specific number.)

“Because of the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, St. Joseph’s University continues to work with admitted students and their families who are interested in attending St. Joseph’s but need additional time to deposit,” the university said in a statement. “We don’t anticipate having hard data to share about enrollment until well after June 1.”

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which includes West Chester and Cheyney Universities, also declined to provide numbers, noting deadline extensions.

Haverford, which does not require deposits, had about the same number of students commit as last year, said Jess Lord, vice president and dean of admission. The school admitted 30 to 40 more students this year because of the uncertainty, he said.

Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges both said they were ahead of last year. Temple University, which did not extend its deadline but is considering late deposits, reported it had slightly exceeded its goal for first-year students.

But college officials acknowledge that the real telling point could come when schools start announcing whether they will open for on-campus fall classes and as the virus’ financial toll on families continues to mount.

“We are forecasting, like every other college and university in America, a higher than typical melt on deposits,” said Shawn L. Abbott, Temple’s vice provost who oversees admissions. “In addition, our transfer and international student situation remains murky at best, and we have yet to get a good gauge on retention among our returning students.”

Temple has said it will make a decision on fall plans later this month. Others will decide later: Penn State by June 15, Stockton by early July, and Haverford College by Aug. 1.

In New Jersey, officials for years have been trying to stop the out-migration of college students. New Jersey has been one of the top exporters in the nation. And now it’s been one of the states hit hardest by the pandemic.

“New Jersey needs your energy, your intelligence, and your commitment,” the presidents wrote in a joint statement last week, urging students to come home.

Houshmand, Rowan’s president, said that given the fear caused by the pandemic, more students may want to stay closer to home. There are already signs, he said. More than 1,300 students are seeking to transfer to Rowan, up more than 8% over last year.

“We do have capacity,” he said, noting Rowan, already one of the fastest growing schools in the country, could accommodate an additional 500 students.

At both Stockton and Rowan, the vast majority of students are New Jersey residents.

Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University.
WAYNE PARRY / AP
Harvey Kesselman, president of Stockton University.

Offering a streamlined admission process and housing, the New Jersey presidents are asking students to come home and help the state rebuild as part of a “New Jersey Scholar Corps.”

“Our arms are open for them,” said Harvey Kesselman, Stockton president.

He noted that while freshmen student deposits are down, summer enrollment at Stockton, which has a beachfront residence hall at its Atlantic City campus, is up 15%. More freshmen applications also are coming in, he said.

Paul, 20, who attended Monroe College, said he probably would have looked at transferring for sports and education reasons anyway, but the virus made him more certain.

“It’s more than likely I’ll go to Stockton,” he said.