Did You Know? Colleges Could Lose 1/3 of Students if Fall Classes Stay Online

Higher ed leaders have bemoaned what they see as insufficient federal support during the coronavirus pandemic, but they might have a bigger problem: convincing students to enroll in the fall.

A recent survey found that about one-third of high school seniors will defer or cancel starting their freshman year of college if classes are online-only. Another survey noted a similar number of college freshmen would withdraw if they only have remote classes.

The threat of losing so many students may help explain why two-thirds of colleges have announced plans for in-person classes in the fall. Though some schools have announced an online-only fall semester, college leaders apparently realize just how big of a threat online-only education is to attracting students who want a traditional on-campus experience.

Colleges also won’t get cheaper if they go online. The University of California-Berkeley emailed students in April to confirm that tuition will not be lower even if fall classes go online. The argument is clear on the side of colleges: Universities are expensive institutions with fixed costs, regardless of in-person or online classes. Students and parents, however, might not feel like supporting those costs without the benefits of being on campus.

All is not lost, however. The Carnegie Dartlet survey that found one-third of students will not enroll if classes go online isn’t entirely bleak. It found that 42 percent of students will not delay enrollment under any circumstance. It also noted that “a campus that physically opens with simple social distancing measures is likely to retain 95 percent of their commitments.” Students will tolerate change—so long as it doesn’t mean staying at home online all semester.

Losing 5 percent of students a college expected could hurt. Revenue from student tuition and fees pays for faculty research and student services, among other costs. It is, however, manageable. The sky hasn’t fallen on most colleges yet, but leaders will need to figure out student expectations if they want to keep them enrolled.

Anthony Hennen is managing editor of the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.