Featured is a group of incoming Dominican University freshmen during a Student Orientation, Advising and Registration (SOAR) campus event this past summer. Photo Provided

Dominican University will be welcoming its largest freshman class ever this fall, with more than 600 students. While the enrollment number will be finalized and revealed in a census report by September, university officials say 636 students have put down their college enrollment deposits to hold their spot.

University officials also say the Class of 2026 remains diverse, with at least 60% of students identifying as Latinx, and has a high academic profile, averaging a 3.8 GPA.

Genaro Balcazar, vice president of enrollment management at DU, said the freshman class is so big the university might have encountered another first. Earlier this summer, officials informed incoming students they needed to put down their enrollment deposits by mid-July to keep classes small and offer a 15-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, said Balcazar.

“We intentionally keep our classes small because it’s the way that we are able to help students be successful,” Balcazar said, adding as the freshmen class grew, the university moved to cap the classes to accommodate students. 

Throughout its history, the number of freshmen attending the university in River Forest had settled at just below 500. Before the Class of 2026, DU’s largest freshman class was in 2016, which had 495 students, according to university data.

“We’re really excited,” said Balcazar about introducing the Class of 2026 to the rest of the student body.

Balcazar said this year’s incoming freshmen reflects the larger student population, where more than half are Latinx, mostly women and first-generation college students. The university typically pulls students from Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, many  eligible for Pell Grants, federal financial aid for low-income students – and this new batch continues to adhere to those trends, he said.

So, how did this happen?

Balcazar said he wished there was one thing he could point to and “explain it away” but believed the uptick in incoming freshmen students is the result of efforts years in the making, including initiatives to build up career-focused academic programs and wraparound support services for students. Things fell into place – the “processes, messaging, timing,” he said.

On top of that, Balcazar told Wednesday Journal the jump in undergraduate enrollment was likely impacted by schools fully reopening last year.

“It’s so important for students that are first-generation – which we serve so well – to get those visual cues and reminders from teachers and high school college counselors to fill out an application for FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid],” he said. “I think that those reminders that hadn’t been there recently kind of [led to a] surge in applications and subsequently the [college enrollment] deposits.”

Balcazar also told the Journal he noticed students who took a gap year or deferred their college enrollment during the pandemic are making their way back to school but are choosing ones closer to home.  

“I think because of our geography, because of our strong reputation in the region and the quality of our academic programs, we have fared pretty well during these times,” he said.

With the start of the fall semester around the corner, Balcazar said he can already feel the energy buzzing on campus. In the last few weeks, the university welcomed incoming freshmen and transfer students for SOAR [Student orientation, Advising and Registration]. Aside from that, the university will also be unveiling a new welcome center in Lewis Hall and renovated hallways, one of which will bear a new heritage mural while others will include images of students.

“All of those things combined create this energy and good vibes, and I think people are feeling that,” he said. “I got to tell you: It’s a lot of work, but this is where all of that work kind of pays off. You start to see the smiling faces of the students.”

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