Before the COVID-19 outbreak, institutions were already grappling with a host of enrollment challenges. The number of “traditional” students – both domestic and international – had been flat to declining, while the share of “non-traditional” students – a typically harder-to-serve population – had been increasing. This shift will be further exacerbated starting in 2026 by a “Birth Dearth” – the 12-percent decline in fertility rate that occurred in the immediate wake of the Great Recession, according to Nathan D. Grawe.

COVID-19 is affecting people’s experiences in virtually every aspect of their lives – and higher education is no exception. Current and prospective students are now rethinking whether, when and where they should attend. By most estimates, enrollment for fall is expected to be down anywhere from 10 to 20 percent overall. Early surveys indicate that a portion of incoming freshman will switch to more affordable institutions closer to home – or defer their enrollment all together. Current students may well elect to “stop out,” transfer or do an online semester. Meanwhile, adult students who tend to return to education in an economic downturn may lack the ability to do so during this crisis.

And yet, the laser focus that most institutions have on this fall’s enrollment may be short sighted. How can institutions mitigate declines in fall enrollment while preparing for the inevitable upswing in demand some time in 2021?

Create certainty out of the uncertainty

Campuses will open again – the question is when and how. Colleges need to create plans to address different scenarios and be clear about what factors will influence those plans. Before signing rental contracts and buying dorm furniture, students want to know exactly how their university will support them in a crisis.

Keep the pulse on students

Institutions need to understand what their students are thinking, feeling and needing. Regular social media analysis can help take the pulse as those needs change. But understanding the needs won’t be enough; it must also translate into action. Institutions need to proactively and empathetically interact with students in the manner they prefer – using the right channels in the right frequency. Summer is no longer a time to relax communications.

Meet the newly altered financial needs of students

For existing students, financial situations may have drastically changed. Institutions need to mitigate financial barriers to a student returning before they decide to go elsewhere. Institutions looking to assess the potential financial impact of the changing student circumstances could elect to deploy a quick “pulse check” through text. By working quickly to deploy the CARES Act funding, schools can meet student needs and keep students progressing toward their degrees. In addition, institutions could rapidly advance their standard financial aid processes.

For prospective students, the aid packages they were offered in their acceptance letters may no longer apply. Institutions may need to offer to re-collect data, analyze it with an updated financial aid data model, and then reissue aid package offers. For students requesting to defer, institutions can work to empathetically understand the reason for the deferral (e.g., financial) and evaluate if the institution is willing and able to mitigate the roadblocks.

Divert international students to online

The regulation requiring international students to take most courses in person has been relaxed in the time of COVID-19. Institutions should encourage these students to take the fall semester online, making sure to provide course offerings that are sensitive to time zones. Additionally, institutions might need to get creative to ensure that their international students have access to all course materials. This is especially true of Chinese students, who are the largest segment of international students.

Don’t stop student admissions or learning

Institutions should not stop attracting and enrolling new students. Predominantly online institutions excel at this, as they already have rolling admissions and multiple starts throughout the year. Traditional institutions should consider instituting rolling or round-based admissions as soon as summer, as well as adding mid-semester starts. In a new AACRAO study, 58 percent of institutions indicated they are considering or have already decided to remain fully online for fall 2020. Others are considering remaining virtual for the entire 2020-2021 academic year. Institutions planning bolder moves like this need to ensure pathways for “on time” graduation to avoid a full-year deferral.

In our next post, Jonathan Fry will explore the surge in demand for online adoption. In the meantime, reach out to me via LinkedIn or Twitter to continue the conversation.

Samantha Fisher

Managing Director – Consulting, Public Service, Education

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