Two of the defining characteristics of the COVID-19 pandemic are the scale and the level of uncertainty. As for the scale, every person and industry on Earth is affected. Higher education is no exception. As for the uncertainty — there are still key unknowns about the virus itself, let alone how it’s going to impact our way of life over the coming months.
Although no one is certain what the Fall 2020 class will look like, we do have some early indications. Those indications point toward many schools having a smaller class than they would have otherwise, but in many cases the drop won’t be precipitous.
While our ENROLL predictions — predictive models that simulate hypothetical admit pools that predict class size and composition — aren’t prescient, they can mitigate some of the uncertainty.
That’s because, in addition to demographic and other factors, our models account for deposits … and so they’re responsive to changes in deposit rates. Overall, we’ve seen a 10.4 percent decrease in deposits compared to this time last year. Out of schools who partner with us for ENROLL predictions, as of March 1, 50 percent were up in deposits compared to last year. As of April 14, only 25 percent are up.
It’s possible students are waiting to see how the pandemic winds down before making their decisions, especially as hundreds of schools have postponed their deposit deadline. Right now, there’s uncertainty as to whether the schools are opening up at all.
Given the fact that “going in the fall” could mean “sitting at home on Zoom” students might be waiting for that piece of information, and then deferring a year until they can get their actual freshman year as expected. This potentially sets up for a late surge of deposits this year, especially for schools with deadlines after May 1. Or it could mean a larger class in 2021, but at this point the trendline is down.
This chart shows the combined deposits of five schools that exemplify the trend of lagging deposits since March 1. These schools specifically are on the coasts, where the Coronavirus epidemic has hit hardest so far.
Although students haven’t deposited over the last month like they have in years past, maybe with all this extra time sitting around their house, they’re spending some of that time checking out college websites.
That doesn’t seem to be the case so far when comparing the number of identified visitors for our schools this year vs. January through April of last year. The lowest total of the year was the week of March 15, which was the week when many schools were cancelled as well as when the number of diagnosed cases in the U.S. increased from less than 4,000 to more than 33,000. Students had other things on their mind than researching colleges. Traffic has increased since then as students have reengaged in their decision process.
Although student interest in college is low right now, that doesn’t mean it will stay that way. Higher education is resilient through tough times. When economic prospects are less appealing, for some students earning a college degree becomes more appealing in comparison.
The unemployment rate shot up to over 4.4 percent in March according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is much higher than that now. While this is likely a short-term phenomenon and represents a public health crisis more than an economic one, it nevertheless represents an economic hardship to millions of American families. What happened the last time we had a spike in unemployment — in 2009? Yield dropped.
However, there’s a positive tradeoff. Even as yield dropped sharply in 2008 and 2009, retention rates rose each of those two years. As a result, the percent of high school grads enrolled in college actually increased from 2008 to 2009, from 40.9 percent to 42.4 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Although the class of 2020 may be scared away from attending college, the classes of 2018 and 2019 may be scared away from leaving college.
So far, this analysis has focused on first time freshmen. However, for students who are 35 or older, there’s a different story.
Adult students respond much more to the change in unemployment. When unemployment shot up in 2009, so did the number of adult students. As the economy improved through the 2010s, fewer of them felt the need to return to school.
All told, Fall 2020 is shaping up to be a tough year for enrolling new freshmen. However, most students who were planning on attending college a month ago are probably still planning on attending once Fall rolls around, it may just take even more effort than years past to get them to enroll.
On the positive side, this may lead to an increase in adult students and increased retention of current students.
By John Foster, Assistant Data Scientist, Capture Higher Ed