Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment at Michigan State University has only dropped a bit but the number of cases among students is concerning, President Samuel Stanley said Friday.

Stanley delivered that mixed report during a meeting of the Board of Trustees, announcing that fall enrollment dipped 1% from a year ago to almost 50,000, including 38,675 undergraduates.

Samuel Stanley

However, even with mostly-remote learning at the state’s largest university, 200 cases  of COVID-19 have been detected in students since Aug. 30, days before the school year began on Sept. 2, the president said.

“All of the cases we have seen would have been preventable by following the clear guidelines that we and public health experts have emphasized: Wear a mask, practice physical distancing, avoid gatherings such as parties — particularly those that take place indoors,” said Stanley. “What happens right now is going to play a significant role in deciding how we go about spring semester.”

MSU announced late last month that undergraduate classes would be held online only and asked students planning to live on campus to stay home.

Stanley said there are no COVID-19 cases associated with the few in-person classes MSU is offering and the university is not seeing cases among the 1,700 students who are living on campus, or a significant number of cases among staff or faculty.

“All (cases) involve students who live off campus and the majority live in group houses, including fraternities and sororities,” Stanley said. “Most of the case students were exposed in large gathering of 25 or more people and some smaller gatherings of 5-10.”

MSU’s community compact remains in force, the president said, including consequences for violations of local and statewide health orders. The university plans to impose interim suspensions on 26 students who have violated the community compact.

Meanwhile, Stanley said that 80% of the university’s preliminary count of 49,875 students are from Michigan. The rest are from outside the state or from another country. 

MSU had been concerned about a decline in international students, particularly first year international students, and that did happen, the president said. The number of such students is 470, or 5.6% of the entering class. It is down about 2 percentage points from last year.

“We attribute that to concerns about COVID-19 and the inability to get visas from many of our students to come and study within the U.S.,” Stanley said.

Graduate/grad-professional enrollment is 11,200 total, down less than 2% from last year. The five-year average enrollment is 11,658.

“I am pleased to say that this looks again like MSU’s most diverse student body in history,” Stanley said. “Students of color are projected to be about 25% of our U.S. student total, up a percentage point over last year’s number.”

MSU spokeswoman Emily Guerrant said enrollment numbers will be finalized after Sept. 28, the last day for students to withdraw.

After the meeting, Stanley said the university’s finances won’t be finalized until Sept. 28.

“We are actually doing better than we had budgeted for,” he said.

Challenges include impacts to the auxiliary services budget from having few students on campus, and the athletic budget from the postponement of Big Ten football.

“Overall, in a couple of areas we are doing better than we thought we would,” Stanley said. “We are following very closely what happens with state budget allocation. We are hoping that higher education will be spared any budget cuts in this upcoming (state) budget. That would be wonderful. If there was a slight increase, that would be even better, although that might be wishing for too much.”