f there is a glimmer of brightness in the current plague besetting the planet, it may be that high school seniors in the United States are suddenly more likely than ever to get the proverbial “fat envelopes” or acceptance letters from their dream schools, as colleges send out final letters of admission in the coming weeks.
“We were already in a very new and uncertain world of higher education enrollments, caused by the demographic shift and the high cost of higher education,” says Bill Conley, vice president of enrollment for Bucknell University, a selective liberal arts college with an enrollment of 3,600 in rural Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. “So this [pandemic] comes along and throws it very much into the food blender, you know—when it was on just a little bit of mince, it is now on full grind.”
As a result, Bucknell and many other schools, unable to court prospective enrollees with festive campus “admitted students days” or even routine campus tours, will be increasing the number of students they send acceptance emails to in an effort to ensure that they yield enough to fill their incoming classes.
Last year, a relatively good year economically, Bucknell was forced to admit 100 students from its waiting list after it failed to attract enough deposits from incoming freshmen by the May 1 deadline. It wasn’t alone; in 2019 more than 500 colleges reported shortfalls to the National Association of College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) by the deadline.
For the highly selective institutions, like members of the Ivy League, acceptance rates and yields (the percent accepted who actually enroll) may not change significantly, in part because these rarefied schools have deep inexhaustible wait lists. However, many top schools enroll large numbers of international students, and now those prospects are questionable. As of March 20, 2020, the U.S. Department of State suspended all routine visa services, which would include student visas.
“The challenge is that things are changing so quickly that it’s impossible to predict what the status will be two and a half months from now,” says Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University, whose acceptance rate of 8% translated to a freshmen class of 1,744 last year, including about 10% from abroad. But Duke, which has a total foreign student population of 22%, according to the most recent data from the Department of Education, ought to have no problem reaching into its waiting list should the 170 or so incoming freshmen it will likely admit from abroad be unable to journey to its Durham, North Carolina, campus this fall.
Many others have more serious enrollment conundrums. International students make up nearly 50% of those attending New York City’s School of Visual Arts. Boston’s New England Conservatory of Music and Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have international student populations in excess of 40%. Students from abroad account for some 36% of Columbia University’s enrollment and MIT’s population amounts to about 30% (see table, below).
Brand-name and prestigious colleges with ample endowments, from Syracuse University and Boston College to Georgia Tech will weather the current storm. However, for many lesser-known and less well-heeled schools like Drexel University, Emerson College and Fordham, the problems will be more acute.
The nation’s higher education system can hardly afford any more financial stress. According to Forbes’ 2019 College Financial Grades ranking, some 675 of the 933 private, not-for-profit colleges we analyzed scored grades of C and below; meaning their balance sheets are weak and operations fragile. These are the most precarious among hundreds of tuition-dependent colleges—typically, institutions with tiny endowments that deeply discount their advertised tuitions and struggle each year to merely cover expenses.
Facing the inevitable reality of a decline in graduating high school seniors after 2025, most of these zombie colleges were already scrambling to devise survival plans before coronavirus became front-page news.
“Now there are a bunch of parents saying, quite reasonably, Can we have a refund on room and board? And most colleges are doing that,” says Richard Ekman, president of the Council for Independent Colleges, referring to the fact that virtually every school will now complete their spring semesters online. “The hit for a college that doesn’t have deep resources is going to be substantial. For a small college, it could be $3 million or $4 million, just in refunded money.” Ekman, whose organization represents 650 mostly small liberal arts colleges, predicts layoffs and furloughs will be hitting campuses soon.
Next year’s financial picture is even more bleak. For starters, there is the potential loss in revenue from international students, who are more likely to pay full tuition. Then there is the fallout from the stock market crash, which will cripple endowments and fundraising. There is also the matter of federal financial aid, which determines the all-important “estimated family contribution” each year. Financial assistance for the academic year 2020–2021 would normally be based on 2018 tax returns, which are likely to have little relation to many families’ actual 2020 incomes. Using 2018 data, many colleges have already sent out financial aid packages with their letters of acceptance.
“We have not yet determined how we are going to handle the volume of financial aid appeals we have already received,” says Rock Jones, president of Ohio Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts college about 30 minutes north of Columbus. “We have a process, a normal process. But these are not normal times.”
Ohio Wesleyan, which typically admits about 70% of its applicants, is known for offering financial aid to nearly every one of its 1,550 undergraduates. In an effort to stave off a so-called melt of its foreign students, it has already made a commitment to provide online classes if visas are unavailable.
Before the pandemic struck, institutions of higher education were already bracing themselves for another worrisome unknown. In December 2019, NACAC entered into a consent decree with the Department of Justice, which unraveled its gentlemanly code of ethics that essentially prevented schools from competing aggressively for students once they committed to another college. Now it’s open season for poaching admitted students—even those that are accepted under early decision.
“COVID-19 has exacerbated the desperation of some institutions to enroll their class,” says Robert Massa, former chief enrollment officer for Drew University, Dickinson College and Johns Hopkins, and now a consultant. Massa expects the gloves to come off this summer as schools compete for promising applicants, and even solicit transfers from the rolls of promising students they previously rejected on early decision.
“When your president comes to you and says, you know, we need 30 more students, you’ve got to go get them from somewhere.” says Massa. “So they’ll fish in somebody else’s pond to get their students.”
Ironically, higher education’s nightmare could turn out to be a dream scenario for the Class of 2024 and their parents, who now have more leverage than ever, especially if the student is applying outside of the top 50 ranked colleges.
Buyer beware, however, as the most desperate colleges will skimp on resources, including faculty, and even worse, may be forced to merge with another college or shut down altogether.
Says Massa, “I wouldn’t be surprised if [the pandemic] doesn’t push some schools over the edge. Institutions can’t run on fumes.”