Last year around this time colleges were in a general state of upheaval. There was worry about:
—Enrollment…and whether students would show up when classes were largely online or if they would retreat from higher ed for a year—or permanently.
—Revenue…especially from so-called auxiliary services on residential campuses, including things like room and board, parking, athletic tickets, bookstores and coffee shops.
- The dirty secret that few college CFO’s like to talk about is how much money their institutions make from on-campus housing and food and how that profit subsidizes other parts of the university.
as ACT/SAT testing sites closed or significantly reduced capacity. Without tests, colleges couldn’t easily buy the names of students
to recruit or follow their traditional process in selecting their next class.
What’s happening: Now we’re getting a clearer picture of last fall with the release of several reports this past week. As expected, the data show basically everything is down—from enrollment to revenue to the number of SAT test takers.
By the numbers…
🏫 Nationwide, some 652,000 fewer students enrolled in colleges and universities in the fall of 2020
compared to the fall of 2019
, a decline of more than 3%. The overall drop can basically be attributed to two-year colleges. Enrollment actually increased slightly at four-year institutions, particularly public universities.
Inside the numbers: Men, in particular, avoided higher education in droves: their enrollment dropped by 5.8% compared to 1.3% for women.
💵 Fewer students living in dorms, drinking coffee, buying sweatshirts, and going to football games meant that colleges collected $6.5 billion less in revenue
from auxiliary services last year compared to the previous one.
Inside the numbers: Last Saturday, a little over 100,000 fans saw Ohio State lose its first home game since 2017. Fans weren’t allowed in Ohio Stadium last year. That’s just one reason why Ohio State saw its auxiliary revenue plummet 41% between 2019 and 2020.
📉 Just 43% of applicants reported a test score in an application filed with the Common App last year
. That’s after more than 600 institutions went test-optional because of the pandemic. The year before some 77% reported a test score.
Inside the numbers: First-generation and underrepresented minority applicants were less likely to report test scores than everyone else. This follows with the advice given to many students from well-resourced high schools last year (and this year): if you don’t submit a score, admissions officers will assume it was low.
✏️ The rise of test optional policies clearly had an impact on test taking trends last year. The College Board reported
on Wednesday that the number of students who took the SAT from the high school Class of 2021 fell by a whopping 32%. Fewer students taking the test meant the average test score rose a bit from 1051 to 1060.
Inside the numbers: Nearly as many students in this year’s senior class have already taken the SAT at least once (1.4 million students) as took the SAT all last year from the Class of 2021 (1.5 million students).
What it all means: Unlike the Great Recession, which knocked even wealthy colleges off their footing, the pandemic is only accelerating a great separation in higher ed. The rich got richer over the last 18 months.
- Colleges that were already getting more than their fair share of applicants before the pandemic—big public universities and more selective private institutions—just got more during the last admissions cycle. Some of them, such as Fordham and Northeastern, ended up over-enrolling this fall, while less known publics and less selective privates were left begging for students.
- Digital-first campuses—schools that either had significant experience in online education or had invested in their “digital backbone” of student services—seem to have weathered the storm better than those that had to MacGyver a solution on the fly in March 2020.
- Another advantage for some schools was staying mostly “open” during the 2020-21 academic year to provide in-person instruction to undergraduates and tours to prospective students.
What’s next for institutions: For some colleges, it will be very difficult to play catch-up after the pandemic.
- The fiscal and demographic realities on the near horizon call for greater differentiation with the development of flexible pathways to degrees for students and improved offerings for different segments of students, such as adult learners.
- Colleges need to step away from the herd in meaningful ways. That doesn’t mean they have to throw away all the markings of the legacy model (i.e., residential education), but it does require a real distinction in the marketplace.
What’s next for students: The pandemic is prompting a great reassessment about higher education among students and their families.
- At the most basic level, as I heard in focus groups of high-school students convened for a report I authored for The Chronicle of Higher Education, they are worried about their safety and well-being, and hesitant about paying for a residential experience that’s even partly virtual.
- There is also growing evidence—both anecdotal and in surveys—that the pandemic has had a dramatic psychological effect among students on the path to college.
- Students fell behind academically during remote learning. The lack of social connections in school and in extracurricular activities affected their mental health. And a year of protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd has only intensified the expectations of a generation already highly attuned to issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion about how they want colleges to live up to those ideals.