College in the Age of COVID-19

Asher Wu
May 4, 2021

Schools and students on college campuses have been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Students nationwide were sent home as colleges started closing in early March. The academic year closed out with colleges and universities pivoting to online instruction and examinations.  With the coronavirus possibly starting to wane in certain parts of the country, college presidents are wrestling with whether they should open their campuses for the upcoming fall term. And even if they do, will students (and their parents) feel safe enough to return?

Student enrollment rates are down 20% as COVID-19 sweeps US cities

Current data suggests that four-year colleges may see a 20% enrollment decline, but much depends on what happens in the coming months. A steep drop in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) renewals suggests that fall semester at colleges and universities will be anything but normal, even for those institutions still tentatively planning in-person classes. FAFSA renewals provide historically reliable data about how many students intend to return to school for the upcoming academic year. According to FAFSA, data provided by the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) showed application and renewal numbers for this year matched last year’s until mid-March. That decline corresponded with the rise of COVID-19 infection rates and the move to remote learning in higher ed institutions across the country. As of early May, FAFSA renewals by students from low-income backgrounds were down by about 5%, or some 350,000 students. Among graduating high school seniors, FAFSA applications are also down. Recent research has shown that completing a FAFSA application is one of the best predictors that high school graduates will go on to post-secondary education. In fact, seniors who fill out the FAFSA are 82% more likely to enroll in college than their peers who do not, according to NCAN. As of May 29, 2020, first-time FAFSA applications were down by about 66,000 students Pell Grants, a federally subsidized financial award for low-income students, are suffering similar reduced numbers of returning applicants among all income ranges. Some states are offering FAFSA deadline extensions, but the federal deadline remains June 30. Students who are planning to return for the Fall 2020 term and have completed the FAFSA application may be eligible for emergency coronavirus grants, under the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, in addition to other financial aid and private loans.

College after COVID-19

In an effort to get all students back on track as fast as safely possible, many colleges and universities are preparing for a possible return to at least some in-person instruction beginning in August. Whether or not there will be students fully back on campus is still up for debate for many universities. There will be big changes, though. These may include:
  • Smaller class sizes.
  • Physical distancing in classrooms, dormitories, and other common spaces.
  • Masks may be required in all common areas.
  • Eliminating fall breaks to discourage students from traveling between semesters.
The scheduling of terms may change too, with classes starting earlier in August and ending before Thanksgiving. A hybrid of online and on-campus instruction is being looked at by many schools, while others have already determined to proceed with the fall term exclusively online. While enrollment predictions look dismal right now, higher ed institutions may see a spike in numbers if the coronavirus infection rate drops and stays below an accepted rate. Interestingly, the pandemic may actually help some colleges and universities, with record unemployment sending nontraditional students back to school for retraining or graduate degrees. Institutions with high-quality and accredited online programming, including community colleges, may see surges in enrollment closer to August.  For the most part, and much like the rest of the world, students and schools seem very much to be in a wait-and-see mode, and the return of students to college campuses post COVID-19 will be a new challenge to navigate.