Missing freshers leave US colleges with big costs and few answers

With government aid lacking, institutions struggle to identify winning strategies

October 27, 2020
Broadway theaters stand closed along an empty street in the theater district
Source: Getty
Vacant spots: new enrolments are estimated to have dropped by 13 per cent

US universities hit by huge enrolment declines this autumn are stuck with billions of dollars in financial pain and few clear answers for ending it in the months ahead.

New enrolments at four-year public and non-profit private colleges are estimated to have shrunk 13 per cent this semester, with hundreds of thousands of students driven out by pandemic-related costs and complications.

US colleges and universities overall have estimated that their Covid costs and losses amount to about a fifth of the $650 billion (£500 billion) they spend each year.

Many see the disruption persisting, with new government aid uncertain, and students unclear about what it will take to get them back.

“A lot of them have been radio silent,” said George Zimmerman, assistant vice-president of enrolment management at West Virginia University, where new enrolment was down about 8 per cent.

Accepted students who deferred appear to be planning to come to the campus in the spring or the following autumn, Mr Zimmerman said. But, he continued, “we haven’t really heard much back from them at this point, because I think there are still a lot of questions that they’re waiting to see answered”.

Eighteen-year-old Adam Levine said that he had deferred his acceptance to Yale University to avoid the educational challenges and social shortcomings of studying remotely.

“It didn’t seem worth it to spend that money to go to Yale when it's going to be a less than desirable experience,” Mr Levine said.

Instead, he’s working as a receptionist in a family dental business and taking a computer science course at a local community college, while living with friends in a rented apartment near his home in Washington DC.

The nationwide enrolment data, compiled by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, show a decline in enrolment across all year groups of 4 per cent, with the number of overseas undergraduates starting new courses down almost 14 per cent.

Online-centric institutions represent a rare bright spot, with four-year for-profit institutions – many of which normally operate online – reporting a 4 per cent gain in enrolment.

Non-profit online specialists such as Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire University are also booming. WGU reported that its total enrolment this autumn was up 7 per cent, while SNHU said that it had so many new starters that it had to hire 300 new full-time staff members.

The vast majority of colleges beyond those, however, either need to adjust their operations or get more government assistance, experts have warned.

Only about a third of US colleges regularly test their students for coronavirus, and dozens have reduced in-person instruction or imposed other operational limits because of outbreaks. Affordability looms as a major barrier for testing, but colleges may simply need to make that much more of a priority, said Christopher Marsicano, an assistant professor of higher education at Davidson College in North Carolina who leads a project tracking Covid in academia.

US universities are also heavily handicapped by the failure of Congress to provide any significant aid to institutions and students beyond an initial $14 billion allocation in March.

Bridget Burns, executive director of the 11-campus University Innovation Alliance, said that one of her member institutions expected 800 of its students to drop out if it did not get more government assistance soon.

“We’re going to see the downstream effects of this,” Dr Burns told a forum on Covid and academia hosted by the American Enterprise Institute. “This is not going away – this is here to stay.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Absent freshers leave a hole

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