COVID-19’s Fiscal and Enrollment Impact on Universities
Erika Veth, EdD
Millennium Computer Systems Ltd
April 6, 2020
Erika Veth, EdD
Millennium Computer Systems Ltd
April 6, 2020
Just over two weeks ago local governments began mandating that all public and private K-12 schools close due to the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly after, colleges and universities started making this transition as well, with most moving classes to an online format for the rest of the current semester and at least through the rest of the academic year. A few days after the mass exodus of instruction from on-campus to online began, I heard from the VP of Finance at the university I worked for during the better part of the last decade in my dual roles of Dean of Online Education and AVP of Strategic Enrollment Management.
As many have been doing with our friends and colleagues, he was reaching out to check in on my family and me, but I had to ask how everyone on my former leadership team was handling current events related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
His first comment was that the faculty and administrators were really working together and collaborating to support students during this challenging and unprecedented time. This was good to hear and much of my LinkedIn feed has been filled with uplifting examples of many colleges and universities working together to help each other and their communities. But I had to ask my VPFA friend about the business and operational concerns they might be facing. His response at the time was one of significant concern over the financial impact of this mass transition to online classes and on the impact on new fall enrollment and retention.
The gravity of the situation many are facing is not lost on me—my background centers on both online education and enrollment management, so my thoughts immediately jumped to how colleges and universities can prepare for what is to come—which, by the way—is largely unknown as there is nothing in recent history with which we can compare this. What institutions can do right now, however, is review current data and compare them to archived and historical data trends. This can help administrators prepare for what is to come by monitoring financial, enrollment, and registration trends and to proactively and nimbly adjust strategic planning approaches.
The current situation related to COVID-19 made me want to consider we do know and what we can rely on as we plan for next steps in the coming months and years. I like research and data-based information—I find it somewhat reassuring to read about what is firmly known—and so my thoughts wandered over to some of the most concrete and straightforward enrollment research that I relied on in both my Online and SEM roles.
The first, The New Generation of Students, a 2018 publication written by Jeffery Selingo, reported that fewer students than ever before are venturing further away from home for college, and Gen Z in particular has a very comfortable relationship with technology that reduces much of the stigma previous generations occasionally felt when related to online education. As Selingo points out, “Knowledge is everywhere for these students. They are accustomed to finding the answers instantaneously on Google while doing homework or sitting at dinner” (p. 9). In times like these, I find this knowledge comforting because it means that our young adult learners are likely not struggling with learning how to use new technology—true, this doesn’t solve other crises they may be facing like housing and food security—but it does mean that a mandatory transition to online learning will be less burdensome than it would have been for their parents and grandparents.
Transitioning everyone to an online format during the middle of a term or semester might be manageable for many students, but what does this mean for new and returning enrollment at traditionally brick and mortar institutions now that almost all classes in the US and Canada have moved online for the foreseeable future? Tours, campus visits, and preview days are cancelled. Interviews and professor meetings are all virtual. There are likely hesitations on housing deposits for fall.
Of course, our traditional Gen Z young adult learners aren’t our only students we need to check in with. Rural, place-bound, underrepresented, and non-traditional populations are just as important to the overall fabric of enrollment at our institutions. So I turned to another publication I often referenced when thinking about recruitment and retention, The Adult Student, which discusses the need for innovative delivery options that are appealing to working adults, stay at home parents, and those who are otherwise place-bound.
Some suggestions for innovation include credit for prior learning, competency-based education, and “either fully online or hybrid classes” (Blumenstyk, 2018, p. 27). This publication points out that adult learners aren’t always seeking new degrees or full time education as they have in the past, but today’s adult learners require affordably attainable skill-sets that will help them either advance their career or allow them to transition into a new one.
Similarly, Selingo (2018) posits that “To teach Gen Zers, colleges need to give them options—to learn independently or in a group; and virtually, in a classroom, or out in the world, applying new concepts and skills” (p 31). Perhaps the higher education marketplace is ripe for a transition to more flexible and online opportunities and COVID-19 is the not-so-gentle push forcing us into this territory.
But back to the data and all of this is uncharted territory. I personally feel more confident and positive about the future when I can forge a data-informed plan, so here are my takeaways for how you can immediately use your available data to plan for the future during a time of upheaval:
1. Budget. Is your university refunding dorm costs to students who weren’t able to stay the entire academic year? Will you charge online delivery fees instead? Forecasting tools that allow your team to look ahead are crucial to planning for the next biennium during unprecedented times.
2. Applications and Admits. If May 1st was the traditional deposit deadline at your college, and you have pushed it back to June 1st or beyond, be sure to track your trends compared to last year. Perhaps you have an increase in applications and admitted students, but your housing deposits are suddenly lagging. This is the time for communicating to your prospects about next steps and regularly tracking their responses.
3. A looming recession. It is possible that it has never been more important to easily pull tuition information by subject, department, program, term, course, campus, etc. and to model your expected costs and revenues. Recessions are complicated for higher education. I remember very clearly being a new faculty member during the Recession of 2008 when enrollments at the university I was working at surged. A seasoned faculty member said, matter-of-factly, “well when the economy tanks, everyone goes back to school.” However, after spending 2011-2019 as an administrator, I can tell you that recessions hurt higher ed institutions significantly in the short term and the one that’s coming is likely to be of a different nature than what we’ve seen before. For example, fiscal reserves face significant depletion during the next year as so many work to climb out of the aftereffects of COVID-19 and planned budgets are unexpectedly reallocated. Using available data and dynamic selection formulas will allow for leadership to at least understand what is coming.
4. Retention. There are so many unknowns when it comes to retention and persistence. Will your students return to you in the fall? Will COVID-19 no longer threaten us by then, or will we see a resurgence of infections and mandates for online education will continue until there are better treatments, herd immunity, and maybe even a vaccine? If students aren’t on campus to physically see and meet with their advisors and the giant “it’s time to register” banner that greets them every day, will you still meet your retention goals? It is essential to track registration for the upcoming term on a weekly basis and to communicate within the application to your students via text and email.
5. Human Resources. Communicating with current employees, tracking leave, and organizing new schedules and policies will now need to occur remotely as will on-boarding of new staff and faculty and continuing ongoing searches.
Here at Millennium, we are excited to announce a series of webinars that will address each of these areas above. Webinars will be available live every week and will be recorded and posted the following Monday morning. Join us this Thursday, April 9th for our first webinar focusing on retention.
Selingo, J.J. (2018). The new generation of students: How colleges can recruit, teach, and serve Gen Z. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.
Blumenstyk, G. (2018). The adult student: The population colleges—and the nation—can’t afford to ignore. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.