News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 30,  Number 1   //    January/February 2022

Undergraduate Enrollment Declined Again in Fall 2021

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, fall enrollment in colleges and universities has continued to decline. The latest from data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), released in November 2021, shows that fall 2021 enrollment did not recover from 2020 pandemic-related declines. The report reflects data from 13.7 million undergraduate and graduate students as reported by 74 percent of Title IV degree-granting institutions providing data to the NSCRC as of October 21, 2021.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment has declined nearly 8 percent since fall 2019. Community colleges have fared worse: since fall 2019, enrollment at community colleges has declined 15 percent.

About two months into the second fall semester of the pandemic, postsecondary enrollment across both undergraduate and graduate levels is now running 2.6 percent below last year’s level, for a total 5.8 percent drop since 2019. Undergraduate enrollment declined 3.5 percent from last fall or 7.8 percent from fall 2019. Graduate enrollment grew 2.1 percent, maintaining the upward trend from last fall (+2.7 percent), for a total 4.9 percent growth since 2019.

Undergraduate enrollment continued to trend downward across all sectors, with the steepest drops in the private for-profit four-year and public two-year institutions. Undergraduate female students declined slightly more than males (-4.1 percent and -3.4 percent, respectively). Continued enrollment losses among traditional college-age students (18–24) remain concerning (-2.6 percent for 18–20 and -3.3 percent for 21–24).

Freshman enrollment went down again (-2.7 percent from last fall or -13.1 percent since 2019) and in all sectors, except private nonprofit four-year institutions (+2.5 percent from last fall).

“It seems like a lot of young people are going to work instead of college, especially students from low-income families who’ve been lured away by this temporary hitch in the labor market where wages are increasing,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of NSCRC, on an October 25 call with reporters. “Trying to understand those students who might never get back into the college path is really important. It’s important to our future workforce.”

New Study on Student Trauma Related to COVID-19

College students experienced trauma symptoms through COVID-19-related institutional betrayal according to COVID-19- related  Institutional  Betrayal  Associated  with  Trauma  Symptoms among Undergraduate Students, a report by Alexis A. Adams-Clark and Jennifer J. Freyd. The findings are based on survey responses from approximately 600 undergraduate students across two studies conducted in the fall 2020 and winter 2021 quarters at the University of Oregon. The report defines institutional betrayal as instances “when an institution fails to fulfill its obligations to institutional members who entrust and depend upon it.”

The fall 2020 survey found that 67 percent of students experienced at least one type of COVID-19 related institutional betrayal. The findings reported that the most common instances of institutional betrayal were “creating an environment where transmission and/or safety violations seemed common or normal” and “creating an environment where transmission and/or safety violations seemed more likely to occur.” Ten percent of students in the survey also reported experiencing the least common forms of institutional betrayal: “punishment for reporting and active denial of students’ experiences.”

In the second survey, 55 percent of students reported institutional betrayal in the winter 2021 quarter. In a discussion of the study, researchers Adams-Clark and Freyd noted that they were surprised by this 12 percent drop in rates of COVID-19-related institutional betrayal because the winter quarter experienced higher COVID-19 transmission rates. The researchers offered several theories as to why this occurred: perhaps COVID-19 policies and procedures were insufficient in fall 2020 quarter but “by winter 2021, many students may have acclimated to these policies… and the initiation of vaccine distribution on the national level may have reduced the perception of institutional betrayal.” They also theorized flawed policies from fall 2020 may have been revised, leading to a reduction in institutional betrayal.

In the conclusion of their report, Adams-Clark and Freyd urge readers to interpret their conclusions in light of their limitations. A primary limitation is the fact the surveys only polled students at one university. “As such, it is difficult to conclude how these results generalize to other universities, which may have implemented markedly different COVID-19 policies and procedures,” the researchers wrote. Nevertheless, their goal is that their report “serves as an initial step to investigate the prevalence of institutional betrayal in a variety of domains” and replace institutional betrayal “with actions that center the needs of its institutional members.”

Open Doors 2021 Details Massive Decline in International Student Enrollment

On November 15, 2021, the Institute of International Education (IIE) in partnership with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs released findings from the Open Doors 2021 Report on International Educational Exchange. Researchers collected data from nearly 3,000 U.S. higher education institutions hosting international students in the 2020–21 academic year as well as U.S. students studying abroad for academic credit during the 2019–20 academic year.

The COVID-19 pandemic greatly impacted international students’ ability to study at U.S. institutions. The Open Doors 2021 Report revealed the United States hosted 914,095 international students in the 2020–21 academic year, a decrease of 15 percent from the previous academic year. The total of new international students studying in the United States for the first time experienced an even starker decline of 46 percent since fall 2020.

International student enrollment declines impact not just U.S. colleges and universities’ bottom lines, but also the U.S. economy. The Open Doors 2021 Report states international students make up 5 percent of all students in U.S. higher education and according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, contributed $39 billion to the economy in 2020.

The loss of international student enrollments due to the pandemic has resulted in the largest single-year drop in the dollar amount contributed by international students studying in the United States, according to data released by NAFSA: Association of International Educators in November 2021. Findings show that the nearly one million international students at U.S. colleges and universities contributed $28.4 billion to the U.S. economy during the 2020–2021 academic year, a decline of nearly 27 percent (or $10.3 billion) from the prior academic year largely due to the pandemic. This is the second time, and second year in a row, that the dollar amount has declined since NAFSA began calculating the economic contributions of international students and their families to the U.S. economy, more than 20 years ago. The combined two-year decline totals $12.1 billion. Of the $10.3 billion drop, NAFSA estimates $9.4 billion (or 91 percent) is solely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Given the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on international academic mobility, this significant drop in economic activity is not surprising, yet it need not be a trend that we are resigned to seeing continue,” said Esther D. Brimmer, NAFSA executive director and CEO.

Retaining international student talent and encouraging future enrollment must be a top priority for higher education. “The vital academic, cultural, and economic contributions of international students and scholars are essential to our ongoing recovery from the pandemic,” said Brimmer.

ACE Survey Studies How Colleges Used COVID-19 Funding

Last fall, the American Council on Education (ACE) surveyed 400 college presidents to study how institutions utilized Higher Education Relief Fund (HEERF) funding. According to ACE, HEERF not only helped institutions keep students enrolled, but also provided the support needed to meet the added operational demands resulting from the pandemic.

ACE’s key findings of the survey center on student enrollment, affordability, alleviating the digital divide of remote learning, funding COVID- 19 policies and procedures, and maintaining employees.

Regarding student enrollment, 63 percent of presidents surveyed “strongly agreed” HEERF funding enabled their institutions to retain students at risk of dropping out due to pandemic-related challenges. Affordability is a primary reason why students might drop out of college and economic uncertainty plagued thousands of students during the pandemic. ACE researchers found that 81 percent of presidents agreed on some level “that HEERF funds enabled their institutions to keep student net prices similar to pre-pandemic levels” to alleviate financial barriers for students.

ACE also analyzed how HEERF funding assisted colleges as they rapidly pivoted to remote learning and creating safe environments for students and staff on campus. The survey found 79 percent of presidents utilized HEERF funds “to keep students enrolled by providing them with electronic devices and internet access” to continue their studies. Once students were allowed back on campus, 63 percent of presidents reported that HEERF provided funding to purchase COVID-19 tests, health screenings, and health care. These infrastructures are essential to supporting students, faculty, and staff.

ACE’s final key finding centers around workforce stability: 70 percent of presidents reported HEERF funding “enabled their institution to keep employees at risk of unemployment due to the pandemic at full salary levels.”

New COVID-19 Variant Forces Colleges to Rethink Spring Semester

Several colleges will start the spring 2022 semester online due to the new Omicron variant of COVID-19. The variant, which was identified in the United States on December 1, appears to be more transmissible than earlier variants and may infect people who are fully vaccinated. Although it seems that the new variant may be milder than others, many colleges are still taking precautions.

Several California state institutions will begin classes online in January, including (as of December 23): Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Diego, and Riverside.

UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep Khosla released a statement on December 21 that said: “In anticipation of a surge that may coincide with the planned start of our in-person, residential Winter Quarter, UC San Diego is exercising caution and moving our instruction to a remote-only mode from January 3 to 17.”

Additionally, he said, “During this time we will incrementally populate the campus (with students, faculty) using a more comprehensive testing regimen.”

Some private universities in California, including Stanford University and Loyola Marymount University, are also starting spring term online.

Harvard University also announced that the beginning of the term in January will be remote.

In a letter to students, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow and other administrators wrote: “We write to inform you that for the first three weeks of January we will take steps to reduce density on campus by moving much of our learning and work remotely. Please know that we do not take this step lightly. It is prompted by the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases locally and across the country, as well as the growing presence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. It is reinforced by the guidance of public health experts who have advised the university throughout the pandemic. As always, we make this decision with the health and safety of our community as our top priority.”

Additionally, Bacow said, “Only students who have previously been authorized to remain on campus or those who receive authorization from their schools should plan to return to campus during this three-week period. Authorization from schools will be based on compelling individual circumstances or immediate need for campus presence during the January term.”

Several others across the country will be remote in January, such as DePaul University, Duke University, Columbia University, McDaniel College in Maryland, Oakland University in Michigan, and the Universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Chicago.

Smith College announced that its three-week January term would be mostly online.

“Interterm courses will be held as scheduled. We strongly encourage instructors to move to remote instruction, whenever possible. We expect most interterm classes will meet remotely most of the time,” said a letter to students and faculty members from Kathleen McCartney, the president, and others. “Students whose interterm classes will meet remotely are strongly encouraged to remain home rather than return to campus.”

Colleges are continuing to monitor the spread of the Omicron variant; as the situation evolves, more announcements of spring remote instruction are anticipated.

More Colleges Requiring COVID-19 Booster Shots

Many colleges and universities have recently announced a requirement for their campus community to receive booster shots of the COVID-19 vaccine for the spring 2022 semester. Some of these institutions include Dartmouth College, Davidson College, Lehigh University, Lafayette College, New York University, Johnson & Wales University, Princeton University, Syracuse University, and Wesleyan University.

The entire Massachusetts State University System is requiring COVID-19 boosters. The system comprises nine institutions, ranging in size from fewer than 2,000 students to some of the largest universities in the state with more than 10,000 students. The institutions include Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Framingham, Salem, Westfield and Worcester State Universities, the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.

The nine colleges that make up the Massachusetts State University System released a joint statement to announce that everyone must have a booster shot within 30 days of becoming eligible.

“With the continuing transmission of the Delta variant and the emergence of the Omicron variant, the safety of our campus communities remains at the forefront of our planning as we prepare to return to in-person learning and campus life for the spring 2021,” said James F. Birge, chairman of the Massachusetts State University Council of Presidents, in a statement.

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