Factors impacting fall enrollment infographic for data strategy with fall enrollments

Data Strategy with Fall Enrollment

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Projected Fall enrollment is a focus of discussion at university cabinet meetings all across the country at this time of year. Typically, the discussion centers on completed applications, admits, and deposits compared to the previous year. Institutions experiencing growth celebrate, while institutions facing declining enrollment discuss how to increase yield. Until recently, the dialogue was status quo – and most institutions had some idea of what Fall 2020 might look like. Institutions may even have been planning their budgets based on these expectations. This article focuses on the ways in which senior leaders can supplement their current discussions for a data strategy with fall enrollment. Impacts of COVID on different student groups are explored.

Predicting the Unpredictable

All of this changed with the entre of COVID-19 as institutions struggled to address the pandemic. Initial discussions on the pandemic facing higher education on news sites such as Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education focused on whether to close physical campuses, followed by when and how to close physical campuses, what to do about students studying abroad, how to quickly switch to remote learning, and then progressed into discussions of whether courses should adopt pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading policies, and whether students should be refunded part of their tuition and/or room and board costs.

While many articles addressed the impact of the pandemic on incoming cohorts, top of mind for college administrators at most institutions went further. Would those currently enrolled students who left in March return in the fall? How would the coronavirus affect colleges where retention and persistence rates have remained steady? If institutions cannot count on a thriving new cohort, can they at least depend on current students to return? The answers depend on many factors – not simply how the institution handled the pandemic, in many ways, the answers may depend on who the institutions enroll. While an enrollment decrease in fall 2020 may appear on the surface as a single year enrollment issue, it will in fact impact the coming four years.

Factors Impacting New and Continuing Enrollment

Who do you serve? This is probably the most important question for an institution to ask to determine the impact on enrollment for Fall 2020. Do international students make up a significant proportion of student enrollment? Does your institution draw from within your state, from your region, or from across the country? Do you have significant numbers of first-generation or Pell students? Are you a public or private institution?  Below I will cover how each of these may differentially impact enrollment at institutions.

International Students

An international female student reaches for a book on a shelf. Will she be part of the Fall enrollment for 2020?With the physical closure of many campuses, students quickly packed up their belongings and traveled home. And the rest of the semester has been conducted via distance learning. This was an imposition for many students who live out of state. But it was a much larger, and stressful, imposition for international students. COVID-19’s impact on college enrollment of international students may extend well beyond Fall. There is, of course the possibility of a limited influx of new students. But could current students decide the trek back to the US is not worth the expense and stress? Additionally, students who are interested in coming to the US for college may encounter problems obtaining visas. Delays in processing, unreliable appointments, and temporary closures of consulates may prove challenging.

International students often pay full tuition which helps to subsidize American students with financial need. For institutions that depend heavily on international students to support enrollment of domestic ones, shrinking enrollment may be devastating.

In 2017-2018, roughly 5% of college goers were non-resident aliens (1.2 million students). But as one can imagine, these students are not equally distributed by state or sector. In states such as Massachusetts and the District of Columbia, these students comprise 11% of the student population. Additionally, international students comprise a significant portion of enrollment at private not-for-profit four-year colleges, and public four-year colleges (8% and 6%, respectively). A quick review of 12-month enrollment data in IPEDS reveals that, in Fall 2018, non-resident aliens made up more than 50% of the student enrollment at 42 colleges in the US, between 30-50% at 54 colleges, and between 15-30% at 177 additional colleges. These 273 colleges and universities may be at increased financial risk if enrollment of international students declines in Fall 2020.

In-state vs. Out-of-State

The results of a number of prospective and current student surveys reveal that students are reconsidering where to attend in the fall. In part, this is prompted by a desire to remain closer to home. For some institutions, located in large cities that enroll students from the region, this may be good news. However, for institutions that rely on out-of-state students, this can be detrimental to fall enrollment.

A recent Niche report surveyed more than 70,000 high school and college students to gauge the impact of COVID-19. As of May 12th, 11% of high-school seniors have not yet made a final decision on where to enroll. More than half (57%) are reconsidering the schools on their list. Most notably, 38% of seniors and 43% of juniors plan to choose a college closer to home than originally planned.

According to the Digest of Education Statistics, some states have a more positive net migration than others – they bring in more students than they send out. Consider the ratio of in-state students to total new first time student enrollment in states like Alaska, Texas, New Jersey, Florida, California, Nevada, Michigan, and Georgia. These states might be fine if students decide to stay closer to home. Their incoming cohorts are 80% or more state residents. On the other hand, the District of Columbia, and states such as Vermont, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Massachusetts have more than 50% out-of-state students in their incoming cohorts.

Institutions that have typically draw new students from across the country may experience greater disruption than more regional institutions. It may be more important than ever to reach out to those prospective students. College representatives can discuss plans and what the institution can offer when students move so far from home.

First-Generation and Pell

Female student reads a book. Securing her Fall enrollment may impact her institution's retention rate.Students are more concerned than ever about being able to pay for their education. The Niche survey mentioned above found that nearly 95% of students agreed or strongly agreed that they may not have the ability to pay for their college education. Parents are also concerned. More than half (55%) of the parents surveyed stated that they will be less able to support their child’s education financially. However, this is a greater concern for some families than others.

A recent New York Times article highlighted how COVID-19 exposed inequality among students. Some students were able to make the transition to distance learning with little disruption. But the disparities for others was made more evident. Some students have reliable internet, technology, and space to study at home. Unfortunately, others experience unreliable internet connectivity, and share a family computer with siblings also taking distance learning classes.

In addition, some now have to work to provide for family necessities. The impact of this disparity on fall enrollment is still unknown. First-generation students or those who qualify for Pell may be at greater risk of not returning. As a result, colleges that typically enroll high percentages of economically disadvantaged students may experience more disruption than those that enroll students with greater means. Institutions may find it useful to check in with students who are at risk of not returning to determine how their needs have changed. It may be fruitful for students to resubmit their FAFSA.

Private college Gothic style building with students in front - could they be part of the fall enrollment for 2020?Public versus private colleges and universities

Public institutions typically have lower tuition rates as compared to private institutions. However they often are at the mercy of the system office and governor’s office when it comes to state appropriations. This means not only do they not have the same control over their revenues as private colleges do, but it may be harder to cut back on expenses. Private colleges tend to be more nimble and can make changes to policy, and tuition pricing, more quickly.

Private institutions may feel that with the uncertainty of Fall 2020 – will campuses be open with face-to-face classes or online – students may be more likely to consider public institutions. However, that assumes public institutions have sufficient capacity to meet the demand. In many states, private institutions save the state money by enrolling students that otherwise might attend a public institution. Some states provide in-state students who attend a private college a tuition equalization grant, for example. However, this is still a greatly reduced cost to the state. Additionally, if public institutions begin laying off faculty, course offerings may be reduced, and students may find themselves looking elsewhere. More private institutions could see greater demand if public budget cuts materialize as predicted.

Predicting Fall Enrollment

Institutions have a number of ways that they measure projected enrollment.

Deposits from incoming students is one long-used method of projecting the new cohort. May 1 is considered the National College Decision Day – yet in light of the impact of the coronavirus many colleges have decided to extend the deadline until June 1 as deposits have slowed and students reconsider their options. Many reports suggest that graduating high school students and their families may not want to travel out-of-state for study. Some students have already put down a deposit, but may begin looking at options closer to home. So, how much can we rely on that metric? One option for colleges is instead to look at deposits that came in post March 2020. These would be students aware of the impact of the pandemic and feel more certain about their deposit.

Another option colleges rely on to predict enrollment is to look at registration numbers and how they compare to year’s past. Typically, this would be an ideal metric – especially if the institutions has become savvy at projecting melt. But can we count on this previously tried-and-true method for fall 2020? Are students registering for courses in order to hold a spot in case they decide to return? Are they waiting to see whether the institution’s physical campus will open in the fall? Institutions relying on this as a predictor of fall enrollment may find that once student invoices are mailed out, the registrations decline.

What Can Colleges and Universities Do?Woman conducting a college fall enrollment webinar via her laptop

For new students: Many prospective students missed out on the opportunity to visit college campuses. Colleges and universities rely on campus visits to help students develop affinity. In the face of the pandemic, and with colleges and universities closed to tours, institutions need to find other ways to make a connection with these students. Options may include hosting more intimate social events so students can connect with one another. Financial aid live webinar sessions would allow students and their parents to ask questions. And mock courses could give students a chance to interact with faculty and get a feel for what a class is like. Frequent contact in this time is likely to increase affinity. Some institutions are choosing to address this concern by tapping in to their wait lists, offering more financial aid, or poaching students who have committed elsewhere.

For currently enrolled students: Institutions should not rely on registration as a sign that the student intends to return. Instead, during this time when students may feel disenfranchised from their college, disconnected from their friends and classmates, it is even more important to connect with them. Advisors can reach out to discuss how the transition to remote learning went, what challenges they experienced, and ask about plans for the fall. Under these circumstances more communication is better than less.

Forward Momentum

While the uncertainty of Fall 2020 may be disconcerting, this unique time offers institutions the opportunity to connect with their students in novel and creative ways. Prospective students have been shown to rely on college websites in the decision-making process, institutions can use this to demonstrate how they are working with current students and celebrating new graduates. The use of social apps to connect deposited students can allow for social connections to be made and foster affinity. And in this process, parents of prospective or current students should not be left out – they are as concerned about what college will look like in the fall and how the institution plans to address safety and sanitation. What this all boils down to is communication which should be frequent, transparent, and unified in its messaging.

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Carolyn Sloane Mata

Carolyn Sloane Mata is Vice President for Research and Planning at Oglethorpe University.




The Institute for Effectiveness in Higher Education (IEHE) innovates and improves higher education standards through our strategic research, publicly available resources, and partnerships with colleges and universities. We provide extensive expertise on data strategy, IPEDS, institutional research and student success to drive institutional effectiveness.