Dive Brief: 

  • Two- and four-year colleges can use several tactics to help grow their spring enrollment, higher education experts say. 

  • Community colleges should increase marketing and emphasize their flexible class times, while four-year schools can remove enrollment barriers for transfer students, they suggested.

  • Preliminary reports show undergraduate enrollment fell this fall, a concerning trend for cash-strapped colleges that have had to invest in online education and safety measures. 

Dive Insight: 

Some community colleges and four-year universities have a substantial number of students start in the spring. But the pandemic has made enrollment trends challenging to predict

Undergraduate enrollment dropped year-over-year this fall, especially at community colleges, according to preliminary reports from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

Higher ed experts suspect this trend could be driven in part by low-income students, who may lack funds to attend college during the pandemic. Student-parents also are struggling as they balance their education with caring for their children. 

Students’ pandemic-related challenges could stretch into the spring and continue to affect enrollment, especially if coronavirus cases grow unabated in the U.S., higher ed experts said. 

But enrollment could improve if some of the most “dire circumstances” of the pandemic, such as lockdowns, subside, said David Hawkins, executive director for educational content and policy at the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “As the world maybe starts to open up a little bit, I do think students are going to be looking to get back to school,” he added. 

Community colleges can encourage students to enroll by advertising more and marketing their flexible class times and relatively low cost compared to other institutions. That could help them compete with for-profit colleges, some of which have been targeting scholarships to students financially struggling during the pandemic. 

“For-profits more or less compete directly with community colleges for a lot of students,” Hawkins said. “Community colleges, first and foremost, need to really speak in a very loud and clear voice about who they are (and) what they offer.” 

Four-year colleges, meanwhile, should focus on improving transfer pathways, including by telling community college students upfront how many of their credits will transfer. That can lower barriers for applicants wary of enrolling unless they know which credits will be accepted and how long it will take to complete their degrees, said Madeleine Rhyneer, vice president of consulting services and dean of enrollment management at EAB, an education consultancy. 

Easing transfer pathways can also accommodate students who are switching schools for pandemic-related reasons, such as to be closer to home. While colleges have been more flexible for students coming directly from high school, such as by waiving standardized testing requirements, they “need to start doing the same for things like credit transfer,” said George Spencer Jr., a higher ed professor at the University of Georgia. 

Four-year colleges should also keep tabs on students who delayed enrollment out of health and safety concerns. Assigning student ambassadors to periodically check in with those learners can help them feel connected to the institution, Rhyneer said. 

Whether a college teaches classes online or in-person this spring could also impact enrollment, higher ed experts said.

“Institutions have to be  in the back of their minds  concerned about what yet another virtual semester might do if other colleges are opening up,” Hawkins said. He added that colleges teaching virtually should keep students engaged with social activities and create opportunities for them to connect with their instructors.

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