The only certainty is uncertainty as it relates to enrollment for colleges and universities.
That is included in a summary statement of a poll of 1,107 high school seniors conducted by the Art & Science Group. In it, 12 percent of students who had made a deposit at a college or university said they’ve changed their plans and won’t enroll. Another 40 percent hadn’t made a deposit.
Fifty-two percent said a parent had been laid off or furloughed.
It’s in this environment that universities and colleges are navigating as they prepare for fall semester enrollment.
UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI
At MU, the state’s largest single campus, 5,329 prospective students had paid deposits by last week. That’s down slightly from the 5,460 deposits by May 1 last year, which at that time foreshadowed a strong freshman enrollment.
And in August, for the first time since 2015, enrollment grew at MU. Not by much, but at 30,014 it signaled the end of a 16 percent slide following campus protests over racial issues that sent enrollment to its lowest levels in 10 years.
Fall semester enrollment has been declining for the past five years for almost all higher education institutions. The five-year decline for public institutions is nearly 11 percent. It has declined 15 percent at MU in that period.
Kim Humphrey, MU vice provost for enrollment management, said the relatively flat deposit numbers could change before classes resume on campus in August. While there are many unknowns, her team is working to ensure the enrollment numbers are positive.
"We’re going to be open," Humphrey said. "We want students to come back."
The university has pivoted quickly to make online courses work while campus was closed, but it’s not good enough. In-person classes were suspended on March 11.
"They want more," Humphrey said of students. "They want the total experience with sports and the Greek life experience."
The inability of prospective students to tour the campus probably won’t be a detriment, because all other campuses also are closed, she said.
"We were lucky that we’ve had a virtual tour online up and running for several years," Humphrey said. "We’ve tried to replicate recruitment as much as we can while doing all that online. We have online student panel presentations, where prospective students can talk to our students. We’re trying to make it the same experience. We’re putting our best foot forward."
Summer Welcome is another activity that will be virtual, she said.
"We’ve got pretty good responses," Humphrey said of Summer Welcome.
Since tuition rates won’t be set until June, Humphrey said she didn’t want to speculate how they might affect fall enrollment.
Last May, the University of Missouri System Board of Curators approved a 5 percent tuition increase for the current academic year.
MU is under severe financial strain, with layoffs and a 12 percent cut to academic operations. UM System President and Interim Chancellor Mun Choi and other top officials have taken a 10 percent salary cut for three months. Mandatory pay cuts and furloughs in the MU Medical School were announced Thursday and on Friday, 32 jobs were cut at MU Health Care and 17 elsewhere at MU.
Choi said during a virtual town hall that tuition revenues and state revenues are the two most substantial revenue sources for the university.
"We won’t place the burden on the backs of students and parents," Choi said about tuition.
The UM System is receiving $34 million from the federal CARES ACT, with $17 million going to students in need. That will assist in retaining current students, because it only applies to current students affected by the pandemic, Humphrey said.
Prospective students are working with people in the financial aid office to make adjustments to student applications to take into account sudden changes in the economic circumstances of families.
"We’ve got a special team in the financial aid office created to do just that," Humphrey said.
There hasn’t been much indication that more high school seniors are planning to take a gap year between high school and college, she said.
Former Chancellor Alexander Cartwright, before he left MU and before the pandemic closed the campus, spoke with the Tribune about enrollment prospects.
"I don’t envision us over the next few years growing that substantially," Cartwright said. MU must have the infrastructure, including faculty, buildings and resources, to support enrollment, he said.
Steps taken to fill residence halls had successfully packed campus housing, to the point where MU signed a deal with The Rise apartment building to house students this fall.
More students are going to community colleges now before enrolling in a four-year institution, said Cartwright.
Art & Science Group conducted back-to-back polls of graduating seniors about their college plans in March and April, using different students each month
Thirty-five percent of students in the March poll said they would take a gap year, but that had declined to 16 percent in the April poll.
Twenty-one percent said their first choice school may not be affordable for their families in March. That had increased to 27 percent in April.
"This is a shock to the system," said Rick Hesel, a principal with Art & Science Group. "It’s going to have a profound impact on higher education."
He spoke between the release of the two polls.
He can’t predict if the enrollment outlook for universities and colleges would improve or worsen, he said.
"I think for institutions, their planning should include all possible options," Hesel said. "If they don’t, they will get caught with their pants down."
Students don’t want to pay full price for online courses, Hesel said.
In the March poll, 60 percent of the students surveyed said a parent had been laid off or furloughed.
"I think this is so unpredictable," he said.
In another measure, the American Council on Education, an association of university presidents, predicted around a 15 percent decline in enrollment.
The enrollment outlook for community colleges is similarly murky.
Jeff Lashley, president of Moberly Area Community College, declined to provide any preliminary enrollment numbers, saying he didn’t trust them. Fall semester enrollment at Moberly Area Community College has declined 11 percent over five years.
"A lot of students are sitting and waiting," Lashley said. "There’s so much ambiguity, they don’t know."
MACC advisers are working from home, enrolling students and conducting virtual advising session.
"Our advisers are very busy, which is encouraging," he said.
Its campuses are closed and the summer session will be online. The fall semester may be a mixture of online and in-seat courses.
MACC will deal with however enrollment turns out, he said.
"This is a first for all of us," Lashley said. "We’re doing our best to prepare for any eventuality."
The Tribune’s coronavirus coverage is being provided free to our readers. Please consider supporting local journalism by subscribing to the Tribune at columbiatribune.com/subscribenow and help keep local businesses afloat at supportlocal.usatoday.com.