Zac VanderLey–Staff Writer
Greg Van Dyke remembers a five-to-sixday freshman orientation during his first year at Dordt in 1998. The college’s brick buildings still covered campus back then. While Dordt has added the Campus Center, a nursing wing, and other buildings to campus since Van Dyke’s college years, the university’s focus on cultivating a holistic, Christian community has remained the same.
“Dordt feels like home, a place you can trust,” said Van Dyke, now Dordt’s director of admissions.
On Tuesday, Sept. 7, Dordt reported 424 freshmen on campus for its fall semester—its largest freshman class since 1988 (439). The university also posted a record total enrollment of 1,786 students. In 1998, the majority of Dordt’s freshmen class came from a select ten high schools. This year’s class represents around 235 different secondary education institutions.
“There is a spot on the application where students can list why they are coming,” said Brandon Huisman, Dordt’s vice president of enrollment and marketing, “The number of students who check faith formation blows me away.”
Dordt has built upon four strong years of retaining students. Huisman credits the campus community’s response to COVID-19 (continuing in-person classes, in-person campus visits, creation of the Hope Fund, and in-person classes) as a primary reason behind an increase in enrollment for the 2021 academic year.
Because of the record enrollment, Dordt has gotten creative with student housing assignments. There are ten male upperclassmen living in B.J Haan’s old house between West and North Hall (including his great-great nephew). Also, a handful of underclassmen reside in East Campus and graduate assistants live in a house across the street from campus.
These packed-full living quarters give reason for a new residence hall, but the Birth Dearth looms as an obstacle for future growth. The “Birth Dearth” refers to the phenomena caused by the 2008 financial crisis that resulted in a decrease in births from 2007-2013.
“The Great Recession did not simply delay births—it eliminated them,” said Nathan Grawe, a professor of economics at Carleton University.
With consideration to region and demographic, colleges across the country will experience the effects of this phenomenon around the year of 2025 as this diminished generation of children reaches post-secondary age. Grawe expects prestigious colleges like Harvard to continue without loss, given the number of applicants the college turns down. But colleges with smaller markets in regions affected by the Birth Dearth may see lower enrollment numbers.
Huisman remains optimistic of Dordt’s future, given their full classes, strong retention rate of 76 percent (above the national average of 61.1 percent), and full housing. “There isn’t one silver bullet where I can say it was that initiative,” Huisman siad, “That’s why it’s crucial to have an innovative team that thinks well.” Huisman said of Dordt’s enrollment increase of three percentage points per year.
An estimated 30 percent of Dordt’s student body are legacy students: those whose parents or close siblings graduated from Dordt. Some students have other distant family connections.
Andrew Eisenga, a freshmen agriculture major, heard about Dordt as he grew up, even visiting campus to see his brothers. Eisenga’s two older brothers and mother both graduated from Dordt.
“It seems like everybody likes being here and wants to be here,” Eisenga said.
Eisenga found the professors and students at Dordt easier to talk to compared to other colleges he visited. He also chose Dordt because of the pro-tech program. It was something less classroom and “a little more hands on.”
In addition to students with family connections, this year’s new class of students includes 26 international students, 26 transfer students, and 13 returning students. A returning student is an individual who enrolled at Dordt, left, and then returned.
Ashley Rothmeier, a junior psychology major, started at Dordt in the fall of 2019 and left the university the following spring in part due to COVID-19. She also had friends studying in the agriculture department at nearby South Dakota State University, so she transferred. Rothmeier struggled with the secular atmosphere at SDSU and didn’t find the academic opportunities she hoped for.
“I missed the personal relationships and the professors caring about my well-being,” Rothmeier said. “I felt God calling me back.”
Rothmeier recalls walking into the Commons to eat on one of her first days back on campus. She did not know anyone and expected to sit by herself as she dished up her meal. But as she walked to an open table, some students asked her sit with them.
“[At Dordt] You’re more than a number,” Rothmeier said.