More flexible start dates a solution to declining higher ed enrollment rates

The pandemic should have led to more students going back to college. It didn’t—and the academy’s inflexibility may be why. 
By: | January 12, 2021
Getty Images, Irina Griskova

Long before COVID-19, a friend of mine was considering returning to college for a bachelor’s degree, a lifelong goal. He was in his mid-30s, working at a local restaurant and in a great position to return to college: single, flexible working schedule and no children. He was motivated and had looked at some local colleges in our home town, San Diego.

Edward M. Cramp, Duane Morris

Edward M. Cramp, Duane Morris

Unfortunately, his interest piqued at the wrong time of year: mid-November. This meant that no traditional, on-ground, four-year, state-sponsored or nonprofit colleges were accepting applications to start until the next fall, or even winter; he could not start his bachelor’s program for almost 24 months. In the meantime, the entrance counselors suggested that he keep working and take classes at community college. Of course, given transfer of credit and residency requirements, they could not guarantee that all (or any) of his classes would count toward his bachelor’s degree —which meant he could be just wasting time and money. Instead of waiting, he went back to work.

Some might say that my friend should have been more patient, gone to community college and then applied to a four-year institution. While understandable, this point of view assumes that four-year colleges still exist in a sellers’ market. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which shows declining enrollment rates amid the pandemic, indicates otherwise. The data—and my friend’s story—also illustrate a glaring problem in higher education: the academy’s inflexibility.

Declining enrollment rates are not just the fault of COVID-19

Traditionally, enrollments are substantially counter-cyclical: When adults are out of work, they turn to education to retrain, retool and restart their careers.

Still, it is easy to place the blame for the decline in enrollments on COVID-19, which is anything but a typical downturn. Yet while the headwinds created by the pandemic have been strong, they must be considered in context. The federal government’s stimulus spending this spring could have added momentum to those interested in returning to or staying in college. The $1,200 stimulus checks, $600 a week in extra unemployment benefits and direct student grants from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund all pushed money to potential consumers of higher education beyond the usual Federal Student Aid and GI Bill programs.

Add to this the high rates of unemployment, stay-at-home orders keeping people home and distance learning technology that has never been better and suddenly this seems to be not such a bad time to pursue higher education. Instead, enrollments are down, some colleges are closing and experts are predicting an acceleration of consolidation and program closures—a trend that has been long in the making.

The academy must be more flexible

Certainly many factors are at play here. But, my friend’s experience highlights one that is easy to underestimate: the traditional academic year. Geared toward the ever-shrinking population of “traditional” first-time, full-time high school graduates, this relic of the agricultural economy dictates that new enrollments start in the late summer or early fall.

Regardless of start date, institutions only accept applications during a narrow window 18 months to two years before the fall start. This was the dilemma that my friend found himself in. It likely discouraged many other nontraditional students from considering college as an option in March and April of this year. Why would a working adult consider going to college if they could not even apply, let alone start school, for many months or years? Viewed through this lens, it’s easy to see why college was just not an option.

#highered op-ed on the academic year concept: Geared toward the ever-shrinking population of “traditional” first-time, FT HS graduates, this relic of the agricultural economy dictates that new enrollments start in late summer/early fall.Click To Tweet

But what about community colleges? Don’t they offer open enrollment? While that may be true, the “flexibility” offered by such institutions is often illusory. For one thing, community college programs that truly advance a student’s career frequently carry long wait times to enter and limits from state licensing boards on enrollments. For example, in California, state licensing boards in areas such as nursing set limits on program enrollments on a program by program basis. Regardless of a programs’ popularity, these boards are loath to approve additional starts—even in a pandemic, when a shortage of healthcare workers has led to unprecedented demand. Nearly every licensing board does this.

While “flexibility” isn’t the only reason enrollments are down this fall, it does explain some of it—and unlike some issues, it might be an easy fix, especially given the dynamism provided by an increasingly remote learning environment.

Edward M. Cramp at Duane Morris represents institutions of higher education around the United States in accreditation, regulatory, litigation and transactional matters. He also serves as the managing partner of the firm’s San Diego office.