COVID-19 and US higher education enrollment: Preparing leaders for fall

| Article
A college’s first-year class helps define the student experience and heavily influences the institution’s finances. Higher education leaders are concerned about what will happen in the fall; our latest survey insights can help.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a massive toll on lives and livelihoods around the globe. The public-health crisis and economic devastation we are experiencing now have thrown entire industries and institutions into turmoil. Higher education leaders responded quickly by moving to remote learning for the remainder of the 2019 academic year, but they now face a new challenge: 2020 enrollment. Understanding the potential impacts of COVID-19 on enrollment is critical. In a recent survey, 86 percent of college presidents put fall or summer enrollment numbers at the top of their most pressing issues in the face of COVID-19.1

The predictive-enrollment models that leaders have used to plan classes won’t hold up in a COVID-19 world. Much will be tested, including an institution’s ability to serve and educate all students and create the sense of community and vibrancy typically found on campuses nationwide—and their ability to do so in a financially sustainable way; tuition and fees make up 26 percent of revenues for four-year public institutions and 35 percent for four-year private nonprofit institutions.2 As we have seen, the effects of COVID-19 are not playing out equitably, which higher education leaders must take into account as they make decisions for their schools’ futures.

To help higher education leaders navigate enrollment uncertainty, prepare for a number of different scenarios, and act with real-time information, we are conducting ongoing research and analysis to understand students’ perspectives and concerns about their enrollment decisions—and how these shift as the fall 2020 semester approaches. Our research shows current enrollment numbers remain largely unchanged—but a remote fall semester could change things dramatically (see sidebar, “About the research: McKinsey’s student enrollment survey”).

Current enrollment numbers remain largely unchanged—but a remote fall semester could change things dramatically.

Near-term steadiness, but the future is uncertain

The theme underpinning many of our findings is uncertainty. Many high school students have not finalized their decisions about college—from where to study to whether to enroll—which presents planning challenges for leaders and enrollment officers. Between the start of the pandemic and now, some high school students have changed their plans. And as of April, around 8 percent no longer plan on enrolling in a full-time bachelor’s degree program; however, this is counteracted by a similar boost of students who are newly choosing to enroll, who had previously planned to either enroll in a part-time or two-year program or not enroll in school at all. Altogether, the total number of high school students planning to enroll in a full-time bachelor’s degree program could remain largely unchanged (Exhibit 1). Indeed, students seem optimistic, with 37 percent reporting that they believe things will “go back to normal” within three months (by around the end of summer), and another 27 percent expecting “normal” within five months, which could be the reason the numbers are fairly steady.

While some high school seniors have changed plans since January, total new full-time bachelor’s enrollment may remain unchanged.

Students’ first-choice schools are changing

Since January 2020, just over one-fifth of students have changed their first-choice school, citing cost and location as their top reasons for doing so (Exhibit 2).

Of incoming students, 21 percent have changed their first-choice school, most often citing cost and location.

Of those students, 44 percent reported wanting to attend a school with a lower cost of attendance, 30 percent wanted to stay closer to home, and 26 percent wanted to avoid a COVID-19 hotspot at their first-choice school’s location. Indeed, we found that students choosing an in-state, public institution increased by ten percentage points. Moreover, an analysis of distance between chosen schools and students’ reported home zip codes found that students choosing an institution located within 50 miles from home increased by 11 percentage points, while students choosing to attend an institution located more than 500 miles from home decreased by seven percentage points (Exhibit 3).

Students who changed their first choice are increasingly opting for in-state public institutions and/or schools closer to home.

Part of this shift toward lower-cost institutions may reflect a similar trend that typically occurs between January and April.

Interestingly, we have not yet observed a discernible shift in student preference by school size, urban or rural settings, or by online capabilities, which may suggest that uncertainty around travel (particularly air travel) is a major contributor to changing preferences.

Students highlight COVID-19’s impact on college preparedness and potential for success

A significant portion of students reported that COVID-19 had affected their readiness, willingness, or ability to attend a higher education institution. For example, 45 percent of students said that COVID-19 has had a strong or extremely strong impact on their emotional and mental preparedness, while 30 percent reported a strong or extremely strong impact on their ability to afford school. Almost a third of respondents shared concerns about their academic preparedness for school, likely because of the unforeseen disruption in learning during a pivotal year of high school.

Variances in trends among demographics also emerged in our findings. For example, 41 percent of Hispanic or Latinx students report a strong or extremely strong impact on their ability to afford school; 40 percent of students from lower-income households report the same—an increase of 10 to 11 percentage points from the general population (Exhibit 4).

A significant portion of students may continue to be at risk in terms of readiness, ability, and willingness to enroll.

A remote fall semester introduces more uncertainty

While overall college preparedness is top of mind during the pandemic, the possibility of remote learning adds complexity for higher education institutions. Only 25 percent of students responding to the survey agree that they feel prepared for a remote freshman year of college, compared with 54 percent who believe they are prepared for an in-person first year. In addition, only 23 percent of students are confident they can get a quality education through remote classes, and just 19 percent are confident they can build relationships in a remote environment.

15 percent of students are very likely to defer by at least a semester, and up to 45 percent are very likely to look for a different school.

These and other concerns are contributing to enrollment uncertainty in the case of a remote fall semester, and the number of students changing their enrollment plans may yet more than double. Nearly half of the students surveyed report being very likely to change their plans: 15 percent of those students are very likely to defer by at least a semester, and up to 45 percent are very likely to look for a different school (Exhibit 5). The most commonly cited reasons include doubts about the quality of remote learning, the lack of campus experience, and the costs—the latter of which may be seen as too high for an online experience. If institutions have to shift to remote learning in the fall, 32 percent of students report that they’re most likely to look for schools with better online capabilities, 29 percent would look for lower cost of attendance, and 25 percent would look for greater job-placement resources. The vast majority of students (83 percent) expect a tuition discount in the case of a remote fall semester, which, combined with potentially lower enrollment, would significantly affect university revenues.

In the case of a remote fall semester, 48 percent of students report being very likely to defer enrollment or look for a different school.

The challenges of remote learning are not distributed equally

Particularly concerning is the fact that students’ ability to succeed in a remote-learning environment may differ greatly by income levels. Less than half (40 percent) of students from lower-income households report being able to get the necessary equipment for remote learning compared with 72 percent of students from high-income households. Furthermore, only 56 percent of students from low-income households report having reliable internet access and 45 percent report that their home environment could support remote learning, compared with 77 percent and 64 percent of high-income students, respectively (Exhibit 6).

There are large differences in students’ self-reported ability to succeed in a remote environment across income levels.

Losses for universities could add up to $19 billion

Our survey focused on domestic, prospective first-year undergraduate students, which account for about 16% of overall student enrollment in four-year higher education institutions.3 As such, this survey serves as a starting point to consider how a potential enrollment drop among various student populations may affect university financials.

Our analysis suggests that domestic first-year undergraduate enrollment may drop as much as 15 percent in the case of a remote fall semester. That drop, paired with a more modest 5 percent drop in domestic non-first-year undergraduates (assuming that non-first-year enrollment may be “stickier” than first-year enrollment) could lead to almost $7 billion in lost tuition and fee revenues at the sector level (all four-year higher education institutions across the United States). In the case of an overall enrollment decline of 20 percent across all undergraduates, revenue losses could be $19 billion from lost tuition and fee revenues alone (Exhibit 7).

Declines in domestic undergraduate enrollment could lead to as much as $19 billion in revenue losses.

Of course, these potential losses would impact institutions differently based on their circumstances. For instance, some schools rely more heavily on tuition revenue, while others have a large population of graduate students or international students. Our survey also suggests that other factors, such as the institution’s reliance on out-of-state students, overall cost of attendance, or online capabilities may also affect whether or not they are able to retain similar levels of enrollment—especially in the case of a remote fall semester.

How higher education institutions should respond

College enrollment is continuing down a path of uncertainty as schools grapple with reopening—whether that means a bustling campus or virtual classrooms and labs—but getting a glimpse into students’ thinking can help provide a foundation of information on which to make decisions about preparation. Above all, higher education leaders must determine how to balance the financial implications, students’ experience and safety, and equitable access to high-quality education. Admissions and enrollment officers can apply a number of best practices, even beyond their deposit deadlines in this context of uncertainty. The next few months are critical for universities to understand and address students’ concerns to the best of their abilities—and communicate what it is that they are doing, especially for institutions planning a partially or fully remote semester. Enrollment activities will likely remain high priorities throughout the summer, so higher education leaders should consider actions now to prepare for what’s to come.

Communicate with students and provide additional resources

Schools should be much more proactive about their communications with students, and through various touchpoints. When asked what would make them think more favorably about a school in the case of a remote fall semester, 52 percent of students cited conversations with faculty about an academic major or remote learning; 42 percent wanted clear communications and responsiveness from the school; and 25 percent wanted to observe an online class.

Would you like to learn more about our Social Sector Practice?

Schools can also consider hosting virtual events to build a sense of community. Thirty-six percent of students ranked virtual first-year student gatherings as their top choice to build community, while 21 percent of students chose virtual student organizations; another 21 percent selected virtual mentoring, such as buddy events with returning students.

Since many students will not be as emotionally or academically prepared to enter college as they may have been otherwise, providing mental-health resources and remedial-help options as well as helping connect students with social service organizations can fill that gap. In addition, schools can play a role in scaling outreach, such as through video options for counseling, online mindfulness classes, and other applications and tools.

Help students weather the financial impact of COVID-19 and prioritize equitable access

If they haven’t already, higher education institutions should immediately begin the certification process to receive CARES funding. As of mid-April, more than three-quarters of schools hadn’t initiated the process. College leaders should develop a distribution plan to ensure students in need receive aid in a timely manner and coordinate with student-affinity groups and organizations to ensure the most at-risk students are aware of funding availability early on. Proactive communication from the university can help students throughout their decision-making process.

Students will have questions, so colleges should develop and deploy an easy-to-use student portal that addresses commonly asked questions on eligibility, deadlines, and eligible expenses, with links to a simple application portal.

Colleges could also repurpose institutional funds to support students who do not have Title IV eligibility, such as those who are undocumented or international.

Help students succeed in a remote-learning environment

Schools will need to consider providing support for students to succeed in a remote learning environment, especially those who may not have the necessary equipment or reliable internet access. Institutions can offer stipends for internet access and laptop rentals or purchases, or they can directly procure and lend equipment for under-resourced students. In addition, schools can research options for, provide information to, and advocate for students, including working with state and local providers and agencies to request government support.

In the face of such disruption, a public-health crisis, and a global economic downturn, fall enrollment remains uncertain. But the higher education leaders keeping a pulse on students’ and parents’ concerns, perspectives, and thinking—and responding accordingly—will be the ones best positioned to serve them in meaningful ways come fall.

Explore a career with us