Report: COVID-19 worsening enrollment decline and facility growth disconnect

While ‘hunkering down’ and enacting broad recruitment strategies likely won't help, leaders have some options, but need to act quickly

The COVID-19 pandemic is worsening an ever-deepening disconnect between the continual decline in college enrollment and rise in campus footprints, putting many institutions at risk and complicating facilities management strategies.

Since 2007, higher education enrollment trends show that the percentage of  baccalaureate students has fallen by 2% while campus footprints have increased by 8.5%, according to the 7th addition of the state of facilities by Gordian, a company that provides facility and construction cost data, software and services. While Master’s program enrollment is 6% higher than it was in 2007, the number of graduate students has been steadily declining since 2012 while the footprint of physical spaces on these campuses has skyrocketed by 19%.

The report predicts that the college enrollment decline will continue for at least a decade.

“All but the most selective institutions will be hit by this, which means recruiting more broadly is not really a solution for most and that hunkering down may not be an option, either, since this is a long-duration event,” says Bryan C. Harvey, associate chancellor and chief planning officer at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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While demographics are still fairly stable, colleges were already struggling to balance their budgets when the coronavirus hit. “The pandemic both amplifies the problem of potential lower college-going rates and higher costs to institutions, and accelerates it, so instead of having five years to get ready, the problem is now,” says Harvey. “This raises the prospect of a real one-two punch: sudden weakness while students are still relatively plentiful, followed by a long period of enrollment contraction.”

Facilities management strategies amid college enrollment decline

While schools are scrambling to get courses online to engage students, leaders need to rebuild the sense of campus community quickly to address the decline in college enrollment, says Pete Zuraw, vice president of market strategy and development at Gordian. “Pandemic or not, the need for creating a virtual campus community is here to stay,” he adds. “Each school will be conceiving this transformation independently, but sharing insights and comparing progress along the way will be crucial.”

In higher ed, it is difficult to achieve real change in a short amount of time, let alone gradually, but the last few months proves that it is possible to achieve shared governance, for example. “There has never been a time when everyone was more receptive to the reality that things are changing and must change,” says Zuraw. “Administrators must use data driven arguments to align the challenging reality of the existing campus to the student success driven demands of a new kind of community.”

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