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Enrollment Challenges for Higher Education Resulting from the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Enrollment Challenges for Higher Education Resulting from the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of everything we do. While we hope, and plan, that it will soon be controlled and that ‘life” will return to normal, there remains the possibility that its impact could extend well into the future and constitute a “new” normal. It will take many people working many years to document the short- and long-term consequences of this unprecedented intrusion into our lives.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed virtually every aspect of everything we do. While we hope, and plan, that it will soon be controlled and that life will return to normal, there remains the possibility that its impact could extend well into the future and constitute a “new” normal. It will take many people working many years to document the short- and long-term consequences of this unprecedented intrusion into our lives.

Higher education has had to change in many ways with a speed that is surprising, given its history that is marked by deliberate consideration and thorough debate. The mass movement of courses to the on-line environment in order to save the semester for students; the concessions professional schools have made in accepting prerequisite course work, including laboratories, completed on-line; and the policies allowing for special grades (P/F and S/F) for required courses for students who lack reliable off-campus internet access all have been arranged since early March and exemplify our institutions’ rapid responses to this crisis. These changes are in place temporarily for the spring semester and perhaps the summer; many institutions hope to return to traditional delivery and grading methods for the start of the 2020–21 academic year.

Even as we scramble to complete the 2019–20 academic year and graduate our seniors, we must plan for the impact that COVID-19 will have on student enrollment for fall 2020. Many of our colleges and universities have been struggling with undergraduate enrollment, and this crisis promises to exacerbate enrollment shortfalls, thus potentially threatening the jobs of faculty and other personnel and the solvency of some of these institutions.

The purpose of this article is to provide college and university administrators with some “best guesses” as to what they will face in terms of enrollment and income in the fall so they can make plans—for budgets, salaries, new hires, university initiatives, financial aid, adjuncts, reserve and endowment funds, lay-offs, and so on—for the upcoming academic year that are appropriate to their situations. In addition, I will address some factors that will modify what we may see in the fall and beyond and so encourage readers to follow these factors in the news and adjust their plans accordingly.

Across-the-board losses of enrollment due to the US economy

Millions of individuals have at least temporarily lost their jobs, and the numbers are still rising. These include parents who have children enrolled or are about to enroll in college and current students who work to pay, at least partially, their school and living costs. Even if people receive extended unemployment benefits, these don’t fully replace income, and they are finite in length. Some families will encourage their children to defer college, start college locally, or attend part-time until the families get back on their feet. Self-supporting students who have lost their jobs will likely opt to address their accumulated debt before they resume their educations. The extent of these losses in tuition income could be partially buffered by the intervention of the federal government, the use of institutional cash reserves, if available, or the application of endowment funds that are unencumbered or designated for student financial aid, if available. Few institutions will have sufficient funds for these interventions and the vast majority will have to make reductions in their expenditures.

Loss of domestic, nonresident enrollment

In a recent article I stated that our large public research universities and top liberal arts colleges would be immune from losses in enrollment (and income) because of their top-rated academic programs, reputation, and so on and their ability to attract student talent from around the world. That was before COVID-19. Because they attract significant numbers of nonresident (domestic and international) students (40–50 percent of undergraduates are nonresidents at some universities) who pay two to three times the resident tuition, the top public universities are particularly vulnerable to tuition losses due to the falling enrollment of nonresidents. Domestic nonresident enrollment is likely to decline based on the damaged US economy and parents’ reluctance to have their children in schools far from home or in other states where travel restrictions may resurface if COVID-19 remains a problem next winter. For these same reasons enrollments in top private colleges are also subject to decreases. Schools can mitigate a portion of this decline by dipping into cash reserves and endowments to address those situations with monetary concerns only. Perhaps there are also state legislatures that would not want to see old State U suffer for something beyond its control, although state coffers are not exactly overflowing at this time.

Large loss of international (nonresident) enrollment

Because of the complexity around visas, international students must make their decision to study at a US university earlier than domestic students. With travel bans in place from most countries, it is hard to believe many students will plan to attend in the fall of 2020. Current international students in the US who stayed to complete the spring semester or could not return home when universities were closed will likely have to stay through the summer and risk exposure to COVID-19 or chance being unable to reenter the US in the fall. The underlying question is, How many parents are willing to send their children to the US for school at a time when the country now (May 2) has almost one-third (~1.13 million) of the worldwide total of coronavirus cases?

Preparing for an uncertain fall

The burden on administrators in our colleges and universities is unprecedented at this time. Not only must they lead and oversee the mid-semester closure of their institutions, make it possible for students to complete the spring semester, and arrange for housing for some, but they must also deal with costs associated with the spring semester changes, address revenue losses due to refunds, and have a flexible plan for dealing with a different but not yet completely defined set of issues for 2020–21. The challenge that seems inevitable for our institutions is that each will have fewer students and proportionately less income.

Reducing costs

This painful exercise must be done without further damaging income streams or alienating key constituents (students). Institutions with input from their schools and departments must develop a list of elements that are “last resorts” for temporary (the assumption is that things will improve in 2021–22 and thereafter) budget reductions. This list might include some (e.g., tenured and tenure track) or all occupied faculty lines; some or all occupied staff lines; continuing, occupied graduate student lines; and student scholarships and financial aid. If an institution has a substantial amount for reduction (e.g., $5 million on a $40 million budget), it will be challenging to accomplish this level of personnel preservation because higher education is very people heavy.

Variables to watch for in the coming weeks and months

As of early May, the remaining unresolved factors for meeting the enrollment (fiscal) challenges for academic year 2020–21 and beyond can be summarized by the following questions:

When will the US economy be open for business?

Key here will be the rate of restoration of employment. If the economy reopens too soon and COVID-19 infections grow, campuses will close again. As of early May, some state economies are opening for business on a limited basis, but it will be some time before the entire economy has reopened and full reemployment is established.

Will students be able to return to campus for fall semester?

If not, many colleges and universities will suffer not only enrollment losses but additional expenses associated with bonded or loan debt for student housing and parking that are paid for by users (students). The institutions would have to pay those costs from other sources. All institutions will lose income from rental space, food sales, athletics events, spirit wear sales, and so on.

Will students and their parents be confident of their health (COVID-19) on campus?

The key to this is the availability of a vaccine. In the absence of a vaccine, parents and students will have to have confidence in hand washing, social distancing, and other actions that have worked to reduce the spread of COVID-19 but not stopped it completely. The question here becomes what our institutions must do and at what costs to create distance between students in filled classrooms, laboratories, meal facilities, athletic venues, and other campus spaces—more issues for our beleaguered administrators to think about as they plan for the fall semester.

When will a safe, effective COVID-19 vaccine be developed?

This is a critical question because it will determine when we can return to more universal normalcy. Vaccines typically take several years in development and testing to be ready for human application. In this case, the time will be shorter, but is the estimate of early 2021 too optimistic? Then there are the challenges of making enough of the vaccine for the entire world population and deciding who gets it first. Vaccine production is not a simple process.

The 2020–21 academic year will present serious challenges for our colleges and universities. At this time all that is certain about the overwhelming changes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is the significant drop in enrollment (and tuition income) that all types of institutions will experience.

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.


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