Colleges and universities have been facing demographic shifts of traditional college-age students for several years, but now enrollment changes are even greater due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic upended the higher education sector in March, both students and university leaders have faced great uncertainty about what fall 2020 might look like. Class sizes have been difficult to predict as traditional models for enrollment management no longer apply, and plans for reopening have had significant financial and health consequences for students, staff, and faculty. Some students have opted to stay closer to home rather than enroll out of state, while others have decided to take a break from education altogether. International students, who have become a key part of many institution’s enrollment strategies in recent years, have faced visa delays, travel bans, and immigration restrictions.
“There is probably no institution that has not felt the effects of the pandemic on enrollment,” says Angel Perez, the CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “The ‘elite’, or ‘highly branded’ as I like to call them, may have felt them a bit less. Those institutions that were already on the brink of an enrollment crisis that has been exacerbated, they’re feeling it a little bit harder than others. But everybody’s feeling the international student impact, as well as the fear felt by many families who just didn’t feel safe sending their children back into a college environment.”
While exact enrollment figures won’t be available at many institutions until later in the fall, some early data from the summer gives a hint about which institutions have been the hardest hit. A September report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) found that overall, undergraduate enrollment decreased, particularly among associate degree students, while graduate enrollment increased.
As of September 24, 2020, undergraduate enrollment was 4 percent lower than it was last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Freshman enrollment was particularly low—approximately 16 percent fewer freshman enrolled in fall 2020 versus fall 2019. Community colleges saw a drop of 23 percent in first-time student enrollment and an overall drop of 9.4 percent. Graduate enrollment grew more this fall than the previous fall (up 2.7 percent vs. .9 percent in fall 2019).
Enrollment figures vary by geography. Undergraduate enrollment fell across the nation, but the Midwest suffered more than others, with a decline of 5.7 percent, followed by the West (-3.7 percent), the South (-3.6 percent), and the Northeast (-3.4 percent). Graduate enrollment is up in 38 states with both Arizona and Mississippi having the most notable increases (both up 16 percent or more over fall 2019).
Individual institutions have also had wildly different enrollment patterns. The GW Hatchet, the student newspaper for George Washington University in Washington, D.C., reported that GW’s total undergraduate enrollment fell by 7.2 percent based on preliminary estimates, with around 850 fewer students enrolled on the first day of class compared to the same time last year. In Illinois, enrollment at some community colleges has fallen by 20 percent compared to last fall, with a few reporting declines of as much as 40 percent.
Other institutions have actually seen enrollment bumps. Georgia Southwestern State University (GSW) has seen a jump of more than 11 percent with its largest first-year class in the last 50 years, while Mansfield University in Pennsylvania announced a 7.8 percent increase in total headcount enrollment for fall 2020 compared to fall 2019.
Stefanie Niles, the vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University (OWU), says that OWU’s first-year class came in 20 students short of the target. But the number of students requesting deferrals this fall is three times the number that they typically have in any given year. “If we enroll those students in the spring or [next] fall, we will realize the class goals,” she says. “Many of those students are international students who couldn’t obtain a visa in time to get here.”
She says that most deferral requests were filed in the last few weeks prior to the start of classes. “We saw that real change in activity as students started to really face the reality of what their experience might look like and if remote learning was for them or not,” she says.
A Cascading Effect
Enrollment managers say that uncertainty has a cascading effect. “Traditionally, there is a massive resorting of students throughout the country that happens throughout the summer and then sort of levels off,” Perez says. This year, some institutions will continue to admit students even as late as September, which means they are “taking those students away from other institutions.”
Perez says that the enrollment fluctuations will continue throughout the academic year as students make decisions about the spring based on their experience with living on campus and remote learning. “The resorting of students will continue at most institutions throughout the country until we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” he says.
“The pandemic has made competition even tougher because you’re seeing schools that were at higher spaces in the marketplaces making different decisions on their admits,” says DJ Menifee, the vice president for enrollment at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania. That has a trickle-down effect to other schools with less selective admissions policies, he says.
Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, has seen a slight overall enrollment increase due to returning students, even with a smaller first-year class, according to Courtney McAnuff, the vice chancellor for enrollment management. He says that Rutgers made an early decision to go remote because New Jersey was a COVID-19 hotspot in the summer.
For many institutions like Rutgers, the composition of their incoming classes has changed. McAnuff says that they admitted more students from New Jersey from their waitlist to offset declines in out-of-state and international students. “Our freshman class is a little below goal but not severely impacted,” he says.
But a greater number of state residents results in less nonresident tuition—a strategy that many public institutions turned to in an effort to offset cuts to state funding following the 2008 recession.
“Even if you stay level in enrollment, you’re not necessarily going to be level in terms of tuition,” said Doug Webber, an economics professor at Temple University, during a webinar hosted by the Education Writers Association (EWA) in September. “There certainly is a precipitous decline this year, but this is part of an ongoing trend. When you have this big drop in these high-paying students, that’s going to put a significant dent in your tuition revenue.”
Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College, had previously predicted that the college-going population will drop by 15 percent between 2025 and 2029. A declining number of high school graduates has already begun to impact enrollment at some colleges and universities in the Northeast and Midwest.
Normally, there’s an inverse relationship between college enrollment and economic downturn. After the 2008 economic crisis, for example, higher education institutions experienced an enrollment spike as people sought to gain new skills and credentials. But that hasn’t necessarily held true in the current context. “This time is different, because what drives unemployment is a pandemic that really makes high-contact interactions problematic,” Grawe says.
It can be particularly problematic for technical and applied fields that require hands-on education. Community colleges, for example, might see both an increase in dual enrollment students and students who might have traditionally gone to a four-year college and a decrease in students enrolled in workforce programs.
“We already had a looming enrollment crisis,” Perez says. “The demographic cliff is going to happen, so [the goal now] is positioning your institution not just to survive this crisis, but to really think about new ways to recruit and retain to be stronger during the next crisis, which is only a few years away.”
During the EWA webinar, Carlos E. Santiago, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, said that his state has seen closures, mergers, and consolidations of 18 institutions in the last five years—all prior to COVID-19. “If you look at the institutions that are in the most precarious position, they are generally small institutions… that are enrollment dependent with small endowments,” he said. “We are looking very carefully now at our public institutions because enrollment has been trending downward even before COVID-19, [and] state appropriations have not even returned to the level of the Great Recession. So these institutions have not caught up financially over that period of time.”
Institutions that were already struggling with enrollment “just don’t have the capacity to suffer the short-term losses, which in part explains the urgency with which we have seen some campuses respond with reopening plans,” Grawe adds.
Declining International Enrollment
Grawe says that declining enrollment of new international students since 2016 was an early warning for institutions that are heavily dependent on international enrollment. “We didn’t anticipate the pandemic, but lo and behold, the pandemic is reminding us that the international student market, while a tremendous growth market historically, should not be taken as a given,” he says. “The pandemic is making it clear to us that the international student market is an important part of our portfolio, but it also brings some risk.”
Brad Farnsworth, the vice president of the American Council on Education (ACE), says that there is broad consensus that there has been a significant decline in the number of international students studying in the United States. He is reluctant to cite a number but says that “we were using 25 percent for a while and that was little more than an educated guess. I think that is probably low.”
The biggest decline is among first-time international students, Farnsworth says. Many international students who were already studying in the United States remained in the country after most campuses shut down in March.
Some institutions have come up with innovative solutions to enroll international students who were unable to travel to the United States through a combination of online learning and delivering instruction in students’ home countries. Rutgers has created a program for 400 Chinese students in three cities in China. Students are hosted at partner universities, and half of their classes are taught in person by faculty in China and the other half by Rutgers faculty remotely.
“The reason we did that is really just to keep those students in the fold,” McAnuff says. “Because that’s three and a half more years of enrollment and tuition if we are able to maintain those students.”
Farnsworth adds that such approaches are not just a strategy to “COVID-proof your international students. This is a really viable option for expanding enrollment generally. There are plenty of students who are reluctant to leave their home country for various reasons.”
A Disproportionate Impact
Low-income students and students of color are among those who have been most impacted by the pandemic. The NSCRC summer study found that black undergraduate students had the steepest enrollment decline of any group, with 8 percent overall and 11 percent at community colleges.
Another key indicator is a decline in submissions of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA. Through the end of August, FAFSA completions from high school seniors declined 4.2 percent compared to last year, which represents more than 100,000 fewer students, according to the National College Access Network (NCAN). The decline was even steeper among students attending Title I-eligible public high schools, as well as high schools in small towns and rural areas. FAFSA renewals for continuing college students were down around 1 percent, but renewals for students coming from families with incomes of less than $25,000 were down by about 5.4 percent, representing 230,000 students. Those numbers translate into fewer students enrolling in or continuing college.
“For the lowest income students, they need to go through the FAFSA in order to access funding,” Perez says. “If they are not funded, we know they are not going.”
The enrollment challenges may very well continue into the 2021–2022 admissions cycle. Perez says that high school counselors would normally be holding financial aid workshops during the summer or at the beginning of the school year but have been unable to do so due to remote learning. “What is the virtual version of that?” he says. “It doesn’t just happen magically. The system is pretty cumbersome and bureaucratic, and it really takes a counselor to walk you through that process.”
Colleges and universities have also seen an increase in the number of students who are submitting financial aid appeals due to changed financial situations resulting from the economic fallout of the pandemic. A June 2020 survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found that 90 percent of institutions were expecting an increase in financial aid appeals. To deal with the increased demand, Rutgers actually increased the number of employees working in the financial aid office.
“It was unusual, because we were furloughing staff, but the university made a conscious decision to add resources to the student aid office to deal with what we thought would be a really tough situation for families this fall,” McAnuff says.
A Move Toward Test-Optional
One of the biggest changes to the admissions process has been a move toward test-optional policies, which do not require students to submit SAT or ACT scores. Due to the pandemic, many students have been unable to take the tests because the majority of test sites have cancelled the test administration. According to Fairtest.org, more than 60 percent of four-year colleges and universities in the United States will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission. As of mid-September, more than 1,600 four-year institutions had announced test-optional policies.
McAnuff adds that standardized test scores have historically been important in Rutgers admissions decisions as they typically read close to 70,000 applications. “The tests were very important for us, since applications are coming from thousands of different schools, some of which we know nothing about, to give us some sense of the strength of the academic programs there,” he says.
Since so many students are unable to test for the 2020–2021 admission cycle, Rutgers has created a new metric based on a combination of four-years of English and social studies grades, as well as science and math grades, to approximate standardized test scores. The scores were also weighted for honors classes such as AP and IB. Researchers ran regression analysis on data from the two previous classes and were able to accurately predict standardized test scores. As a result, more low-income students and underrepresented minority students were admitted to the incoming class. McAnuff says that many of these students have exceptional grades but might have tested below the threshold for admission in previous years.
“We’re going to evaluate how well the students do academically because that’s the bottom line,” McAnuff says. “But if we can enhance diversity and low-income enrollment as a result of that we actually feel that’s a major [benefit] for a state public flagship.” “It’ll be very interesting to see which institutions go back to a testing policy,” Perez adds.
NACAC has recently called on institutions to rethink the way they use test scores, even beyond the pandemic. In addition to testing, institutions have had to be more flexible with other policies such as deferrals, leaves of absence, and transfer.
Perez says that recent disruptions to higher education have provided an opportunity for admissions officers and enrollment managers to “think deeply about what is real information that we need in order to make good decisions about what it means to be college ready…I would be highly disappointed if we went back to exactly the same way the system worked before. The system was already flawed, and so this gives us an opportunity to really reinvent it.”
An Increased Focus on Retention
Grawe adds that institutions are increasingly focused on retention of current students. “If you can’t recruit more students, it becomes incredibly important that you do whatever you can to retain the students you already have,” he says.
Grawe says that institutions need to adopt strategies that meet the evolving needs of students in order to successfully recruit and retain them. “We’re seeing in COVID that [low-income] students, who are so important to our campuses, are disproportionately likely to struggle when we move toward a methodology that relies heavily on expensive technology,” he says. “And so we need to be thinking creatively about how we eliminate resource gaps.”
Students leave colleges because of academic and financial challenges, but also because they don’t feel a strong sense of belonging on campus. “A lot of institutions are recognizing, as they have in the long run context of demographic change, the importance of retaining every student that they can,” Grawe explains.
Perez adds that the pandemic can serve as an impetus for larger conversations about enrollment management: “This is the time to come together and be as supportive as possible of enrollment leaders on our campuses, but also the most successful institutions will be those where enrollment is an ecosystem across the campus. It is not just the job of the office of enrollment, it is all of our jobs, whether I’m a board member, the president, or a faculty member. Everyone is involved in the recruitment as well as the retention of students.”
Charlotte West is a freelance education reporter. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, USA Today, the Washington Post, and International Educator, among others.
The International Dimensions of Higher Education
- All institutions are feeling the enrollment impact of COVID-19, but some more so than others, especially those that are heavily dependent on international student enrollment.
- Enrollment uncertainty has a cascading effect as students make decisions into the start of the fall semester.
- Institutions that have maintained enrollment have seen a change in the makeup of their incoming classes. Public universities have admitted greater numbers of in-state students while out-of-state and international enrollment has declined.
- Undergraduate enrollment was 4 percent lower than it was last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (as of September 24,
2020). Freshman enrollment was particularly low—approximately 16 percent fewer freshmen enrolled in fall 2020 versus fall 2019. Community colleges saw a
drop of 23 percent in first time student enrollment and an overall drop of 9.4 percent. Graduate enrollment grew more this fall than the previous fall (up 2.7 percent vs. .9 percent in fall 2019).
- Colleges and universities have had to be more flexible in terms of policies regarding standardized testing, deferrals, leaves of absence, and transfer.
- Retention of current students should be a major priority for all institutions.