The Post-Covid New Normal is Looking Bipolar

It’s been a while since I last posted, partially as I’m trying to make sense of new data and anecdotes coming in around that crucial measure of organizational viability for higher ed institutions – enrollments. In that post I combined IPEDS and National Student Clearinghouse enrollment data, showing that while total enrollments were already going down before the pandemic, there has been a significant acceleration of the trend due to Covid.

What is hitting me more and more is that for the most part, we are no longer in a pandemic, yet the enrollment declines at the accelerated rate are continuing, particulary for Public 2-year colleges and secondarily for Public 4-year institutions (yes, for-profits are declining as well, but the trends at the public are more significant). It’s a small change, but I think this revision to the graphic from the May post better captures what we’re seeing, by visually pointing out that we’re seeing data now that cannot simply be explained by Covid.

Quelle Surprise

In the University Business coverage of the NSC data, surprise was the key word.

A rebound in higher ed enrollment after more than two years of COVID did not occur this spring as some experts had anticipated. In fact, the latest numbers show declines are accelerating and there’s likely more than just the pandemic to blame.

Undergraduate enrollment this spring declined by more than 662,000 students, or 4.7%, from spring 2021, according to the latest estimates released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse. Overall, the undergraduate student body has fallen by nearly 1.4 million students, or 9.4%, during the pandemic. “I am surprised that it seems to be getting worse,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse’s Research Center, said in a webinar Wednesday. “I thought we would start to see some of these declines begin to shrink a bit this term, particularly because there’s a general sense we should be coming out of the effects of the pandemic.”

It’s past time to stop being surprised by enrollment declines and waiting for recovery; instead, we should be focusing on understanding and dealing with current trends and understanding the implications.

Back at the end of March, 2020 I shared a post describing my views that the higher education response to Covid would come in phases, with this view subsequently updated. In my view, we’re into Phase 4B, and increasingly the new normal is looking bipolar.

Increasing Separation

The observation that higher education fortunes differ between elites and more open access institutions is not new, but what is becoming clear is that increasing separation cannot be explained away by Covid. The news from UCLA this spring encapsulates both sides of the story.

UCLA has received more applications than ever before for fall 2022 admission, with substantial increases among in-state freshman applicants and top-performing students from California high schools.

Overall freshman applications totaled approximately 149,700, about 10,000 more than last year, making UCLA once again the most applied-to four-year university in the nation.

Note that UCLA typically accepts 15,000 freshman applicants, with just over 6,000 of those enrolling. UCLA is not worried about finding qualified students and is doing quite well.

Transfer applications were down 12% this year, both at UCLA and across the UC system, reflecting the decline in California community college enrollment during the pandemic. Though the number of UCLA transfer applicants fell from 28,500 to just under 25,000, the campus once again received the largest number of transfer applications in the UC system.

California’s Community Colleges 1 are not doing as well, and if anything, their prospects are getting worse, with Spring 2022 enrollment down 13% according to the National Student Clearninghouse. Nationwide, things are bleak for others as well.

Top Spring 2022 Current Term Enrollment Estimates Findings Include:

* The public sector, community colleges, and four-year institutions combined, experienced the steepest drop, of more than 604,000 students, or a 5% decline (see Table 1).

We keep looking for enrollment recoveries to happen as a result of the pandemic ending, but what evidence do we have that the enrollment trends today are primarily driven by Covid?

A Preference Cascade?

Several states are going out of their way to figure out what is happening, and there seems to be a common theme.

Nearly half of Tennessee’s high school seniors aren’t going to college or technical school right after they graduate — the lowest rate in the past 10 years.

“We’re going in the wrong direction very fast,” University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd said Monday. “I’d like to take it as a challenge, and this is definitely the challenge of our time.”

Despite Tennessee’s financial aid programs like the Tennessee Promise and the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship, which make college more affordable, only 52.8% of high school graduates from the class of 2021 enrolled in a college or technical college after they graduated.

That rate is down 4 percentage points from the year before and down 11 percentage points from 2017, according to the report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

Source: Knox News

Nationwide, fewer high-school seniors are choosing to enroll in college immediately after graduation. In some states, not even half of high-school graduates are pursuing higher education, according to the latest data available.

For many states, this shrinking number comes as another grim sign for college-enrollment prospects and for future work forces — especially since students who do not enroll right away are less likely to earn college degrees at all.

Students “have more options than ever before.”

Recent state reports in Indiana, West Virginia, Arizona, Kansas, and Tennessee highlighted significant declines in college-going rates, which reflect the percentage of public high-school graduates who enroll in college within a year. The drop is even larger across the board for low-income students, for Black and Hispanic/Latino students, and for men.

I think it is important to deal with evidence on enrollment trends on their own terms and not just in the context of Covid recovery, and not just based on pre-Covid trends. The data we’re seeing recently have some big implications for the health of institutions, for online and hybrid education, and for alternative educational programs (and even alternative scheduling of programs).

1 Disclosure: MindWires has worked with the California Virtual Campus – Online Education Initiative for years and has also consulting to several individual community colleges.