Since the pandemic gained steam back in March, the drumbeat of stories about higher education’s impending demise has been nonstop. It’s true that some schools will be losers in the battle for students and resources. But don’t be surprised if overall enrollment, one of the sector’s most watched vital signs, doesn’t take a surprising turn this fall.

That’s right, more students could very well be enrolled in college programs this fall than last year.

In fact, we’ve already seen early evidence of this from summer enrollment numbers.  At California Lutheran University, summer enrollments have increased 33%, driven by online class taking, while Indiana University Bloomington reached an all-time high of more than 12,000 summer students enrolled, a 22% jump.

A big reason we may see enrollments trend upward this fall is that millions of newly unemployed people will be looking to boost their skills. Employers see labor markets like this one as a chance to be incredibly selective: Why take lower-skilled people when you have so many higher-skilled workers to choose from? That’s exactly what has happened in prior recessions.

After the 2008 recession, for example, college enrollment jumped nearly 16 percent, with many of those new enrollments flowing to community colleges and for-profit universities. I doubt this recession will be any different, though what will likely be different is where students go. In an environment fraught with uncertainty and outright fear of a second wave of infections, it’s possible that the biggest increases will be seen in online learning as well as at schools that can handle in-person instruction with rigorous testing and prevention efforts.

Declining foreign enrollments and the loss of people afraid of the virus will surely take a bite. Still, net foreign enrollment in U.S. higher education—about 1 million students per year—represents only about 5 percent of enrollment in degree-granting institutions. In line with the historic pattern during recessions, net total enrollments in the higher ed sector will be up.

And if the recession drags on for several years, we will see even greater increases. That’s because our learning systems will change to adapt to the new economy, and employers will become even more selective in whom they hire. As they pick and choose, workers will want to build their skills.

This has huge implications for colleges and other learning providers because there will be winners and losers. And traditional colleges and universities already were under tremendous strain before the pandemic.

Even before coronavirus, 30 percent of colleges tracked by Moody’s were running deficits, and 15 percent of public universities had less than 90 days of cash on hand. As the toll of the virus has become clear, Moody’s has downgraded the entire sector from stable to negative. The American Council on Education, the top trade association for colleges and universities, estimates that revenues in higher education will decline by $23 billion during the next academic year alone. About two-thirds of university presidents call long-term financial viability their most pressing issue. Public colleges also will have to grapple with funding cuts as state governments deal with plunging tax receipts.

So, we must do all we can to ensure that the “winners” are the institutions and programs that truly serve the needs of students and society. We need to reward and incentivize those  that do the following:

  • Design programs and processes to serve today’s students. Today’s learners are older, more racially diverse, and have far fewer life options than the mainstream narrative would lead us to believe. Two in five are over the age of 25, and a quarter of all college students are parents themselves.
  • Make student success the main mission. States, in particular, would do well to revise college and university funding formulas so that they support student success and completion, not just enrollment. Funding formulas should provide additional support to institutions that serve students of color and students from low-income families.
  • Work diligently toward racial justice and equity. We’ve long known about the disparities in enrollment and eventual degree completion among people who are Black, Hispanic and Native American. The national movement that has emerged in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has crystalized the need for proactive strategies to improve outcomes for people of color and achieve fairness in education. It’s a fundamental element of the learning enterprise and has never been more urgent.
  • Enlist employers. Corporations today support about 1 million undergraduates. They already play an important role in increasing educational attainment. More employers are providing tuition assistance to employees, not as a benefit program, but as a strategic investment in their own corporate competitiveness. Research shows that businesses’ investments in workers pay off by reducing turnover—and for workers by boosting pay and helping them advance in their careers.
  • Ensure affordability without sacrificing quality. Tuition that increases at more than twice the rate of inflation—which has been the trend for three decades—is no longer sustainable. New financing models that emphasize the lowest expense for consumers while maximizing educational value have been explored at schools ranging from the public Arizona State University to the private Southern New Hampshire University, and they must be expanded.

What this all means is that, as with many of our social and economic institutions post-pandemic, colleges will have to rethink their missions and operations. This is long overdue. We must revitalize our colleges and universities so they can deliver rigorous and relevant learning opportunities to millions more Americans.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Lumina Foundation, an independent private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. He also is author of HUMAN WORK IN THE AGE OF SMART MACHINES, which will be published in October.

Back to News