Enrollment decisions in the time of COVID-19

Colleges and universities are bracing for COVID-19-related enrollment disruptions as financial struggles, campus closures, and other uncertainties cause students to adjust their plans for postsecondary education.

In an April 9 letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the American Council on Education estimated that college enrollment could drop by 15 percent in the coming academic year. “The pandemic is striking during the height of the admissions process,” the organization wrote, adding that “college and university leaders are fully expecting significant, potentially unparalleled, declines in enrollment, both from students who do not come back, and those who will never start.”

Recent surveys offer window into students’ mindset

“For most universities, the question of how prospective students will react remains the great unknown,” The New York Times writes. New data from marketing and research firm SimpsonScarborough offers a glimpse into students’ plans. In a March 26-30 survey of 573 high school seniors who, prior to the coronavirus, planned to attend a four-year college, 14 percent said they are likely or very likely to change those plans. An additional 10 percent said it was too soon to know, according to Inside Higher Ed.

An earlier national survey conducted March 17-20 by the Art & Science Group had similar findings. Among 487 prospective college students, one-sixth of those who expected to attend a four-year college full time before the COVID-19 outbreak said they would choose a different path this fall. Those alternatives included taking a gap year, enrolling part time, attending a community college, or working full time.

Financial struggles a key hurdle

With unemployment skyrocketing and the economy contracting, financial hurdles are expected to derail some students’ college plans. College leaders say they’re hearing from many families concerned about costs, and a recent survey by educational research firm Niche revealed that 88 percent of high school seniors are increasingly worried about their family’s ability to pay for college.

Those financial pressures are especially likely to “crush the college hopes of low-income and first-generation students,” Politico reports. Colleges that are already financially strained may not be able to meet the demand for financial aid. Moreover, K-12 school closures have left many high school seniors without in-person counseling, which can be crucial in connecting lower-income students with available aid.

“The disruption is absolutely concerning,” said Carrie Warick, director of policy and advocacy for the National College Attainment Network. “If students aren’t in school and they’re focused very much on day-to-day living, they’re not going to be planning ahead and keeping up to date with moving admission deadlines, or FAFSA verification paperwork.” Warick adds that students may struggle to come up with enrollment deposits, apply for scholarships, or ask colleges for updated financial aid packages if a parent has lost a job or their family’s economic situation has worsened during the pandemic.

Will students commit without an in-person visit?

Some students also may be hesitant to commit to attending a school they’ve never visited. Coronavirus-related campus closures have prevented colleges and universities from hosting the sorts of in-person tours and admitted student events that inform enrollment decisions.

To help students get to know their schools, many colleges and universities are creating or augmenting virtual campus experiences and resources. Georgetown University transitioned its admitted students weekend to a digital experience that offers the Class of 2024 a window into student life and the ability to connect directly with current students and admissions officers. Admitted students can take virtual campus tours; introduce themselves and meet peers via an online group; watch financial aid sessions; meet their dean through introductory videos; and hear why other Hoyas chose Georgetown.

The Los Angeles Times reports that some smaller campuses have prioritized individual outreach via phone and email. Their smaller size not only allows for greater personalization but also “leaves less room for error, as a shift of even a few dozen students could disrupt the delicate balance of needed housing and courses,” the Times notes.

Confluence of factors may keep some students closer to home

Still, the combination of financial stressors, family obligations, travel concerns, and other uncertainties may lead some students to switch gears and choose schools that are closer to home or less costly. According to the Niche survey, more than one-third of high school seniors said they plan to stay closer to home than previously intended.

Without an end date on the horizon, the switch to online learning also may be a factor for some students set on having a traditional college experience on campus. International students face additional considerations, like travel restrictions and visa delays, and their enrollment could drop by as much as 25 percent, according to the American Council on Education.

“The effects of these decisions could ripple across not just campuses but the U.S. for years to come,” writes Politico, adding that “students could be stuck in lower-paying jobs for the rest of their lives, lacking the financial boost brought by a four-year college degree.”

Colleges seizing opportunities to be flexible

Hoping to keep students on track, hold enrollment steady, and stem revenue loss, colleges and universities “are making a wave of decisions in response that could profoundly alter the landscape of higher education for years to come.” Some are working to accommodate additional financial aid requests. Others, anticipating lower yields, have sent out more admissions offers.  Some are extending commitment deadlines, going test-optional, and taking additional steps to make the admissions process more flexible.

Related: UC system goes test-optional, relaxes admissions process amid COVID-19 >

“In this year of years, we’ve got to use common sense and intuition because there’s no algorithm that can predict college decisions in a global pandemic,” Vince Cuseo, admissions dean for Occidental College, told the Los Angeles Times.

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