August 12, 2022
Nearly 1.3 million students have disappeared from American colleges during the Covid-19 pandemic, raising alarms that the enrollment emergency projected to arrive a few years from now is already here.
High-school seniors uninterested in studying online chose to defer. Working parents strained by the demands of full-time pandemic child care put their studies on hold. International students couldn’t get visas. Those in majors with hands-on practicums or lab work found they couldn’t register for courses required for their degrees.
Enrollment numbers continue to look bleak as the pandemic drags on, even though in-person classes have become the norm and consulates have reopened. College attendance among undergraduates has fallen almost 10 percent since Covid emerged in early 2020; this spring, enrollment dropped 4.7 percent from the year before, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, a deeper-than-expected decline.
The persistence of the enrollment contraction has sparked fears that many students are not simply missing but gone for good. Research shows that if students stop out, they may not continue with their studies, and that’s particularly true for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. “We have to act now,” said Courtney Brown, vice president for impact and planning at the Lumina Foundation. “This is a crisis moment.”
The pandemic enrollment slide has heightened worries at colleges about finances, especially among those dependent on tuition revenue to meet their bottom lines. Even before the Covid outbreak, the financial resiliency of a third of American colleges was poor, according to a new report from Bain & Company.
Inflation is driving up colleges’ operating costs, and a volatile stock market is eating into endowment returns. Small private colleges, regional public universities, and rural institutions all face strong headwinds, according to the bond agency Fitch Ratings. Federal stimulus funds that helped many colleges avert closures are running out. The outlook, said Emily Wadhwani, senior director and sector lead for higher education at Fitch, is “weak getting weaker.”
Of course, doomsday scenarios have been floated before. Time and time again, in recent decades, American higher education has grown its way out of crises. Colleges have expanded access to underrepresented groups, added academic programs and amenities to attract students and charge them higher tuition, and struck private-sector deals to tap new markets.
This time looks different. Higher ed may have reached the limits of Houdini-ing its way out of decline by getting bigger, and the prolonged pandemic downturn could be just one indication.