The Impact of COVID-19 on Higher Education

Most of us look forward to the fall. The summer heat breaks giving way to cooler weather. The trees display vibrant colors, creating picturesque landscapes before shedding their leaves in advance of winter. And for the most part, college students around the world look forward to returning to campus.

Yet, the fall of 2020 is unlike any other fall in recent memory. COVID-19 has upended life as we know it, leading to uncertainty in practically every sector of the global economy. Higher education institutions are tasked with breaking from their traditional business models to accommodate changing needs and rapidly evolving safety recommendations in order to improve the college enrollment process.

As the fall semester approaches, it is critical for higher education leaders to understand the impact of COVID-19 on enrollment and their student bodies. Predictive-enrollment models are unsuited for the task of planning classes in the middle of a pandemic. For students entering their first year, they will miss out on the vibrancy of campus life, a crucial aspect of the higher education experience.   

In this article we look at some recent studies and statistics to analyze the potential impact that the COVID-19 pandemic will have on higher education in the fall of 2020 and beyond. We will conclude by discussing some ways that higher education institutions can begin preparing to meet changing student needs and industry challenges. 

COVID-19 and Higher Education: looking at the data

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) recently published a report that looked at the impact of COVID-19 on college students’ enrollment status in the spring 2020 semester. The report is significant since it was the first national look at higher education enrollments during the pandemic. While the report did not find that COVID-19 had a significant impact on enrollment statuses during the spring term, there were “early signs of broader impacts that are underway. Intra-term changes (reduced enrollment intensity, withdrawals, or leaves of absence) peaked later than in previous years.”

The impact of COVID-19 on higher education was not evenly distributed in terms of leaves of absence. The percentage of Black and Hispanic students that took a leave of absence in the spring term increased by 206% and 287%, respectively. While the rates for white and Asian students rose by 70% and 59%, respectively. The differences are largely attributable to socioeconomic factors and increased familial responsibilities.

Beyond the NSCRC report, numerous surveys have been conducted to determine the potential impact that COVID-19 may have on the fall semester. One of the most significant nationwide studies has been conducted by the Understanding America Study (UAS). The UAS is a panel of households at the University of Southern California (USC) that consists of some 8,500 respondents representing the entire U.S.

Data collected by UAS between June 24th and July 21st from 795 individuals was mostly encouraging. Just 2% of students that were already enrolled in some form of higher education when pandemic hit say they will not be enrolling in the fall due to COVID-19. And another 3% report that they will be transferring because of COVID-19. While 11% of survey respondents say they will be taking fewer classes, another 10% of students report they will be taking more classes.

The data from UAS gives us some insights into the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on higher education. Approximately 20% of students report that the pandemic has influenced their ability to complete their programs on time. More and more students will have a desire to stay close to home. This is largely due to increased family care responsibilities, reduced incomes, and a hesitancy to return to or relocate to large cities.

Other trends and challenges we will likely see in higher education include over-admissions, increased competition, and a significant decrease in foreign students. Since colleges and universities are unable to accurately predict the size of their incoming classes, many will over-accept students to meet their enrollment goals. This could have a trickle-down effect that impacts less competitive schools. Increased competition could drive up recruitment costs for all higher education institutions.

Schools that have relied heavily on foreign students to meet their enrollment and budgetary goals are likely to be heavily impacted. Simply put, foreign students are hesitant to come to a country that has been ravaged by COVID-19. Decreased foreign enrollment was already a troubling trend and could pose challenges well beyond the conclusion of the pandemic.   

Preparing for the fall 2020 semester

The fall semester, and perhaps a handful of those that come after, will be challenging and noticeably different from what we are used to. Higher education institutions may need to reevaluate their business models, including how they recruit, enroll, and educate students. Virtual learning will continue to play an important role in the fall. Schools should ensure that they have reliable technology in place and that their workflows are optimized to handle new ways of learning and interacting with students.

Beyond virtual learning, schools should prioritize giving prospective and current students a sense of belonging through technological means. Things like student and staff chats, online events, and virtual meetups are smart campus technology examples that can play important roles. Schools should also focus on student retention. In the short-term, this may mean providing financial aid to students so they can remain full-time, as well as providing support like a college wellness program.

Faculty and staff will need to be educated and trained on new COVID-19 institutional processes and technology. New workflows must be designed, tested, and implemented to ensure efficiency and to provide excellent student experiences once classes resume. Colleges and universities can also benefit by automating their workflows, enabling them to more productive while reducing operational costs.

Download our whitepaper, iBPMS in Higher Education or view ProcessMaker’s demo videos 



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