Why face-to-face instruction will have big impact on fall enrollment

Schools are dipping deeper into their wait lists, which could cause a domino effect

The number of undergraduate students registering for college for fall 2020 has dropped since last month, according to an admissions and enrollment report released Friday.

More than half of institutions surveyed (54%) reported lower registration numbers as of May 19, compared to the 45% that reported a decline in an April survey, according to AACRAO, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

More colleges and universities also reported in May that deposits were down compared to April, the survey found. On the other hand, fewer institutions reported declines in summer registration and applications.

“Any school that has some type of traditional experience, where there’s some level of student life and residence halls, all of those schools have heard from students that they’re really desirous of face-to-face instruction,” says Tom Green, AACRAO’s associate executive director. “That’s a huge enrollment driver.”

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With most schools like to continue at least some classes in the fall, some institutions are now trying to determine whether they can offer more financial aid to entice students to enroll, Green says.

Other institutions are dipping into their waitlists to accept students, which could create a domino effect, particularly at community college and in states where the numbers of high school graduates are declining, he adds.

“If you’re a student, and your reach school picks you off their waitlist, now you’ve melted from the school where you’ve deposited,” Green says.

Mixed enrollment picture at community colleges

Numbers at community colleges are also mixed. Students may be waiting to see whether the four-year institutions they want to attend will be online only, which could convince them to enroll in a more affordable community college near home, Green says.

“Students’ first choice may be to go away for that traditional campus experience,” Green says. “But if it’s going to be just online, they may hold off and register at a community college.”

In the 2008-09 recession, the surge in enrollment at community colleges and regional public institutions did not occur immediately.

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Green suspects this phenomenon to repeat itself during the current economic crisis, as furloughed workers wait to see if they will get their jobs back before turning to higher ed to learn new skills.

And, reports that large numbers of students will choose to take gap in year in 2020-21 are likely overblown, Green says.

“In order to take a gap year, you have to be financially able to take a gap year,” Green says. “It’s not a good economy. Students are not going to find jobs and they’re not going to be able to travel.”

Access is being impacted

Many higher ed leaders are particularly concerned that the economic crisis will reduce access for underserved and underrepresented students, says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the American Association of Colleges & Universities.

About 1 in 5 students have recently reported changing their plans for the fall, Pasquerella says.

This has driven colleges and universities, such as those in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to make special enrollment offers to convince students who attend other institutions to remain in their home states.

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“This crisis has showcased the growing economic segregation in higher education,” Pasquerella says. “The digital divide is more expansive than ever. Students are having to take courses or exams in parking lots because they can’t afford broadband at home.”

Pasquerella’s organization will be offering webinars and other resources on its website to help administrators navigate the coronavirus and the economic downturn.

“If you look at the kinds of dilemmas we’re facing, this crisis has shown us the enduring value of liberal education,” she says. “Doctors are being asked to decide which patient should be allocated the last ventilator. These are ethical dilemmas that won’t be resolved only through training.”

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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