COVID-19 and College Enrollment: Uncertainty and Trepidation Revisited

By: Joseph Corace | Last Updated: June 4, 2020

On April 20th, we posted a blog titled “The Coronavirus and College Admissions: Uncertainty and Trepidation: Part I,” in which we discussed the serious economic and related consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on college finances and admissions, and we followed that blog post with others on the same topic.

McKinsey & Company Inc Careers & Jobs - ZippiaIn this post, we’ll discuss the findings of McKinsey & Company, a broad-based provider of information to business and industry leaders, as presented in their May 21st article titled COVID-19 and US higher education enrollment: Preparing leaders for fall. While the article was aimed at higher education administrators, much of its information is also highly relevant for students, parents, and high school educators and counselors.

Here’s part of the opening to that article: 

covid-19The COVID-19 pandemic continues to take a massive toll on lives and livelihoods around the globe. The public-health crisis and economic devastation we are experiencing now have thrown entire industries and institutions into turmoil. Higher education leaders responded quickly by moving to remote learning for the remainder of the 2019 academic year, but they now face a new challenge: 2020 enrollment. Understanding the potential impacts of COVID-19 on enrollment is critical.

In a recent survey, 86 percent of college presidents put fall or summer enrollment numbers at the top of their most pressing issues in the face of COVID-19.

The predictive-enrollment models that leaders have used to plan classes won’t hold up in a COVID-19 world … the effects of COVID-19 are not playing out equitably, which higher education leaders must take into account as they make decisions for their schools’ futures.

In discussing their survey of 2,094 high school seniors, McKinsey notes that

The theme underpinning many of our findings is uncertainty. Many high school students have not finalized their decisions about college — from where to study to whether to enroll—which presents planning challenges for leaders and enrollment officers. Between the start of the pandemic and now, some high school students have changed their plans. And as of April, around 8 percent no longer plan on enrolling in a full-time bachelor’s degree program; however, this is counteracted by a similar boost of students who are newly choosing to enroll, who had previously planned to either enroll in a part-time or two-year program or not enroll in school at all. Altogether, the total number of high school students planning to enroll in a full-time bachelor’s degree program could remain largely unchanged. Indeed, students seem optimistic, with 37 percent reporting that they believe things will “go back to normal” within three months (by around the end of summer), and another 27 percent expecting “normal” within five months, which could be the reason the numbers are fairly steady.

The article goes on to say that

girl-working-on-computerStudents’ first-choice schools are changing Since January 2020, just over one-fifth of students have changed their first-choice school, citing cost and location as their top reasons for doing so. Of those students, 44 percent reported wanting to attend a school with a lower cost of attendance, 30 percent wanted to stay closer to home, and 26 percent wanted to avoid a COVID-19 hotspot at their first-choice school’s location … [and that the data] may suggest that uncertainty around travel (particularly air travel) is a major contributor to changing preferences.


A significant portion of students reported that COVID-19 had affected their readiness, willingness, or ability to attend a higher education institution. For example, 45 percent of students said that COVID-19 has had a strong or extremely strong impact on their emotional and mental preparedness, while 30 percent reported a strong or extremely strong impact on their ability to afford school. Almost a third of respondents shared concerns about their academic preparedness for school, likely because of the unforeseen disruption in learning during a pivotal year of high school.

In a section of the article titled “A remote fall semester introduces more uncertainty,” McKinsey states that

… the possibility of remote learning adds complexity for higher education institutions. Only 25 percent of students responding to the survey agree that they feel prepared for a remote freshman year of college, compared with 54 percent who believe they are prepared for an in-person first year. In addition, only 23 percent of students are confident they can get a quality education through remote classes, and just 19 percent are confident they can build relationships in a remote environment.

Girl working on computerThese and other concerns are contributing to enrollment uncertainty in the case of a remote fall semester, and the number of students changing their enrollment plans may yet more than double. Nearly half of the students surveyed report being very likely to change their plans: 15 percent of those students are very likely to defer by at least a semester, and up to 45 percent are very likely to look for a different school. The most commonly cited reasons include doubts about the quality of remote learning, the lack of campus experience, and the costs—the latter of which may be seen as too high for an online experience. If institutions have to shift to remote learning in the fall, 32 percent of students report that they’re most likely to look for schools with better online capabilities, 29 percent would look for lower cost of attendance, and 25 percent would look for greater job-placement resources. The vast majority of students (83 percent) expect a tuition discount in the case of a remote fall semester, which, combined with potentially lower enrollment, would significantly affect university revenues.

The report goes on to highlight an important disparity in students’ abilities to take advance of remote learning:

Girl learning remotelyParticularly concerning is the fact that students’ ability to succeed in a remote-learning environment may differ greatly by income levels. Less than half (40 percent) of students from lower-income households report being able to get the necessary equipment for remote learning compared with 72 percent of students from high-income households. Furthermore, only 56 percent of students from low-income households report having reliable internet access and 45 percent report that their home environment could support remote learning, compared with 77 percent and 64 percent of high-income students, respectively.

Those are some of the most significant challenges facing college administrators, and how they meet those challenges could profoundly affect higher education in general and enrollment this coming fall in particular.

Stay tuned, and we’ll keep you up to date on issues of this one’s importance.

Topics: College Admission College Counseling College Planning


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