US colleges face ‘serious jeopardy’ in recruitment struggles

Coronavirus crisis may make institutions more eager to please to students, but ‘tensions’ already in evidence

March 31, 2020
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US colleges that had already been wrestling with declining student enrolments before the coronavirus outbreak hit now face the prospect of an additional recruitment crisis that may leave some in “serious jeopardy”.

Like other universities around the world, US institutions have been pushed rapidly into online teaching, have students resentful about lost classes and have international applicants unsure if they will be able to enter the country.

Such problems will be profoundly compounded if in-person classes cannot be resumed by September, said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC).

“My fear is that a number of colleges will be in serious jeopardy of continuing to exist if this happens,” said Dr Ekman, whose group represents some 700 small and medium-sized colleges and universities.

One of the best protective steps that institutions can take, many of their presidents are quickly realising, is a highly aggressive strategy of outreach to students, to demonstrate concern for them and understanding of their circumstances and to help keep their communities together.

That is good practice not just for retaining current students but also for sending a positive signal to prospective new students and their families, said Felecia Commodore, an assistant professor of higher education at Old Dominion University.

She highlighted Herman Felton Jr, the president of Wiley College in eastern Texas, who spotted on Twitter a student complaint about trouble with internet access. Dr Felton jumped right on it, giving the student at his private historically black, liberal arts institution an assurance of help that garnered dozens of tweeted approvals.

“Those are the kinds of things, when prospective students see those, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow – they really value students; they really value student opinions,’” Professor Commodore said.

With so much else now outside their control, college presidents sharing ideas on the CIC’s online leadership message exchange board are making clear their belief in the value of such customer service, Dr Ekman said.

Whether that will be enough to make an impact by the time September arrives is a different question. Many institutions are already refunding room and board charges but experiencing “some tension” with students who feel the move to online teaching warrants even more compensation, Dr Ekman said.

Then there is the job of predicting autumn enrolment. It is difficult enough in normal times for small colleges to accept enough applicants to cover costs, but not so many that it hurts them, Professor Commodore said.

“Enrolment management is a science,” Professor Commodore added.

The coronavirus pandemic also has brought postponements and cancellations of the SAT and ACT tests just as some institutions have been moving to drop the standardised exams as part of their admissions processes.

In the latest such case, the seven public universities in Oregon have announced that, beginning with the 2021-22 academic year, they will no longer require applicants to submit standardised test scores.

Virus-related test cancellations, however, are unlikely to accelerate the longer-term trend, Professor Commodore said. Institutions are growing less reliant on the tests for admissions decisions, but keep them as drivers of rankings and markers of prestige, she said.

In addition, Professor Commodore said, at a time of growing economic stress resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak and other continuing pressures, standardised tests are quietly understood as another tool to raise revenue. The mechanism involves offering financial aid to accepted students based on their test scores, she said. That serves to entice wealthier families, whose children are statistically shown to perform better on standardised tests, she added.

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