File photo: Stephanie McGeary.

All throughout the spring and summer, Cal Poly Humboldt braced itself for a gigantic jump in enrollment numbers. Where would it put all the kids that would be lured here by the new polytechnic designation, and by the new academic programs that went along with it?

Current students were already having trouble finding a place to live. The new 1,000-bed Craftsman Mall complex wouldn’t be ready for a couple of years. Current dorm residents were being told that they might not get their rooms back. Things were so tense that the university and the City of Eureka kicked around the idea of housing students on a giant barge that would be parked in the bay. Eventually, the university rented a whole bunch of motel space in Valley West for its incoming 2023-2024 class, and braced for the worst.

But all that turned out not to be necessary, because the expected wave of new incoming freshmen failed to materialize. The university’s student newspaper, the Lumberjack, has been banging at this story for a while now, but recently the university finished its official tally, which shows that it has a total student body increase of 2 percent this semester — 5,796 this year, up from 5,678 this time last year.

This is something of a worry, as the whole transformation of the old Humboldt State University into a 21st-century-ready Cal Poly Humboldt depends on big growth in the student population over the next several years. During the flush pandemic years, Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state legislature and the California State University system bet $400 million on the proposition that this could be accomplished.

Not so far, though. Though the full “Cal Poly Humboldt” transformation is expected to occur over several years, not only is the university well short of its eventual goal of 11,000 students, it’s not even anywhere near its current, state-mandated goal of 7,603 full-time resident students. It has 5,130 of those now. Because of that, next year’s budget could be at risk.

These figures and conclusions are from a recent letter sent out to the campus community by Cal Poly Humboldt’s Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Success Chrissy Holliday, which was subsequently cc:’ed to the university’s general email list. But though Holliday raises lots of red flags in her update, she insists that everything is still basically on course, and she outlines what steps the university is taking to supercharge the student body growth come next year. Find that letter below.

Also, though: We’d be remiss if we didn’t point you toward another great Lumberjack story, which profiles some of the current students who are living their best lives in those Valley West motel rooms, and don’t want to move to campus even though there is dorm space available for them there.

Letter from Cal Poly Humboldt Vice President of Enrollment Management Chrissy Holliday:

Campus colleagues,

As we are approaching the midpoint of the semester, I want to share important updates about our fall enrollment and what it means for the future of the University. I also want to thank and celebrate each of you for the contributions you have made to our continued growth as a campus.

For the second straight fall, student enrollment at Cal Poly Humboldt increased – an outcome that is the direct result of significant hard work. According to official census numbers, released Oct. 9, enrollment is 2% percent higher compared to last fall, bringing total headcount to 5,976, a one-year increase of 118 students.

All of this comes as colleges and universities navigate a challenging enrollment landscape. Institutions around the country and in California are seeing a continued decline in enrollment, generally tied to shifting demographics. Cal Poly Humboldt’s multiple semesters of growth are going against the prevailing trend, and the results show the positive impact of our polytechnic transformation.

Enrollment Highlights

When the University announced our new polytechnic status, we prepared for an application cycle we knew would be vastly different, as well as multiple enrollment scenarios, including a possible large influx of students right up front. We established scalable plans to support growth of as much as 2,000 students this academic year, knowing that while annual results may vary, our primary goal is to reach 11,000 students by 2028. We are still on track to meet that larger goal, and are in the midst of significant strategic enrollment enhancements in support of that long-term growth.

The University’s overall headcount, which includes full-time enrolled students and part-time students, is one part of the broader enrollment picture this fall. Our enrollment shows positive strategic improvement for the campus, particularly among student populations that are essential to sustainable enrollment growth. More students who stopped out in previous terms chose to re-enroll this semester utilizing a streamlined readmission process, and the number of post baccalaureate students increased, as did those enrolled in online programs available through a partnership within the CSU. In addition, our retention rate for first-time, full-time students rose to 75.3%, compared with 73.6% last year.

We also showed growth in full-time resident enrollment of 3.4% (to 5,130), outpacing headcount growth, which means student behavior changed, and more students are taking the course load they need to stay on track for graduation. We know that interest in Cal Poly Humboldt is strong, as the number of first-time undergraduate applications for Fall 2023 increased by a record 86% — a surge generated in large part by enthusiasm for our polytechnic designation and new programs. The work ahead of us is focused on converting more of that interest into ultimate enrollment, and helping potential students and their families understand why Cal Poly Humboldt should be their top choice for a college education.

Realizing Our Potential

The increase in the number of enrolled students this Fall, while modest, signals a positive direction for the University, which hasn’t seen consecutive years of an enrollment increase since 2014 and 2015. We know that the interest and momentum necessary for growth is present, and we are building the infrastructure needed to support that growth. This first recruitment cycle as a polytechnic has taught us more of what to expect from our applicants, and we have done the hard work to identify the shifts necessary to launch the next phase of our growth.

Our campus is in the midst of building academic programs and expanding the resources that will need to be in place to support more students over the next several years. This year saw the launch of 10 new degree programs with several more, plus certificate programs, on the way. Student housing — on and off campus — is also expanding. The nearly 1,000-bed Student Housing Project at the Craftsman Mall location is slated for completion in the 2025-26 academic year, and more campus housing is planned for the future. This more gradual growth trajectory provides a longer runway to prepare for our long-term increase in enrollment, ensuring that we can provide the structures our students require for success.

While there are many exciting changes ahead of us, there are also hard budget realities that we as a campus community are facing. California State University funding for each campus hinges on established enrollment targets. Our funded level of 7,603 full-time resident students has been unmet for some time. It is important to note that under even the initial aggressive polytechnic targets, that level was not scheduled to be reached until 2025. With 2,473 fewer than this target this fall, the CSU may choose to withhold 5 percent — or $3.4 million — in funding during 2024-25. [More details on Cal Poly Humboldt’s budget.]

Strategic Change

We know there is more work to be done to achieve our goals, and the Enrollment Management & Student Success division is committed to strategically improving our recruitment and outreach efforts, in partnership with the rest of campus. Some key efforts are well underway, ranging from minor pivots to major changes.

This summer, the deadline to self-register for Fall classes was extended, giving new and returning students more time to enroll on their own, without additional hurdles. Admitted students who did not enroll for Fall 2023 have the opportunity to start in the Spring, without having to reapply. Other enrollment initiatives underway include:

  • Re-deployment of our recruiting staff to include the direct placement of recruiting team members in the geographic regions they serve across the state;
  • Expanded engagement with search providers, ensuring our ability to reach California students early in their college search process, well prior to application;
  • Improving communications and relational touchpoints with prospective students during various stages of the application and admissions process;
  • Increasing engagement with students before they apply so they have a better sense of what makes Humboldt special and how the application process works;
  • Reviving “instant admissions” for eligible students at strategic recruiting events;
  • Increasing visits to regional high schools, emphasizing Humboldt First scholarships for local students;
  • Enhancing partnerships with community colleges and other pipeline programs;
  • Increasing our presence at college fairs across the state, leveraging guest recruiters when recruiting staff are not available;
  • Continuing enhancement of our visit and Preview/Preview Plus programs to expand the opportunities for prospective students, particularly those from lower-income and more diverse populations, to interact with our campus;
  • Investment in digital advertising tied strategically to enrollment efforts, increasing awareness, applications, and engagement throughout the student lifecycle;
  • Significant and ongoing revision of admissions processes to streamline the student experience and leverage technology to enhance efficiency.

It is important to note that new student enrollment is one part of the enrollment growth strategy for our campus — retention is the essential other cornerstone. This fall marked considerable progress in our retention success efforts, and that should be celebrated. A number of members of our campus community, ranging from the Student Success side of EMSS, to colleagues in Academic Affairs and elsewhere across campus, are working each day to ensure we better engage students and assist them along their path towards completion.

I am incredibly optimistic about the coming years and proud to be part of a campus that consistently strives to improve the student experience. Each and every day our students, faculty, and staff are reminders of why Humboldt is a special place to live and to learn. I look forward to working alongside all of you as we build next year’s incoming class, knowing that even greater growth is ahead.


Chrissy Holliday
Vice President for Enrollment Management & Student Success