The Forum | College Admissions

Hanna Stotland: The Pandemic’s Impact on College Enrollment

July 20, 2020 by Jonathan Pidluzny

Hanna Stotland, JD is an admissions consultant specializing in educational crisis management. She has helped students overcome virtually every kind of educational interruption, from mental illness to academic failure to disciplinary and criminal consequences.

Ms. Stotland sat down for a Q&A with Dr. Jonathan Pidluzny, Vice President of Academic Affairs at ACTA, to discuss the admissions and enrollment trends that she is witnessing as families make difficult decisions about the fall semester.

In a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, anticipated a 15–25% decrease in college enrollment this fall. Now, that letter came in the spring when the pandemic’s effect on enrollment was still quite speculative. As we inch closer to the fall, we’re wondering if that prediction squares with what you’re hearing from families and perspective students.

It does, but I think an ongoing theme in our conversation today is going to be that nobody knows, and things are going to change in real time. And there have been some schools that have had higher than expected yield on admitted students. I believe I read that a public flagship had exceeded its goals as far as enrollment deposits and that the deposits were coming in faster than they had in previous years. Nationally, most students stay fairly close to home. The percentage of students who are looking at being a flight away from home is actually a small proportion of the college-going community. But even of that group, there’s more of an instinct to stay close to home now. And that is benefiting some schools and hurting others.

I would imagine that it would benefit the big state schools and the regional campuses, and probably hurt some of the liberal art universities that are a little further afield?

Probably, and even of the large state schools, those that are in big metro areas might have an advantage over those that are in college towns a little further away from the populous areas.

We’ve talked about proximity. What are the other factors that are changing parents and students’ calculations? Is there more concern about family financial outlook? How much concern is there about the safety, about being on a densely packed campus? Or is it mainly that people are worried about paying full tuition for more online courses than students would like?

All of those are a factor, and individual families vary, both in which of those issues they prioritize and also in things like the fact that some students thrive in online instruction. I’m hearing from folks who are in the K-12 space that it’s not bad news for everyone, and that there are certain students who—either because there are fewer distractions or because they found it stressful to be surrounded by their friends all the time, or perhaps they were being bullied in school, although of course, bullying can move online—but there are students who are just lost and in despair over remote learning, and some who find it a big step up from what they were used to in the classroom. So those individual questions, I find, make it hard to generalize across the population because these issues are so individual and are hitting certain families differently.

Having COVID-vulnerable family members can prompt the student to say, “Well, I want to stay close to that person.” It could also prompt the student to say, “It’s better if I’m living on campus and not bringing whatever I find in the community home each day.” And so even the presence of a vulnerable family member can push students in a variety of directions.

You said that it’s almost impossible to generalize, and so now I’m going to ask you to generalize. Do you think this is going to have a long-term impact on how families do the calculus with the prestige versus college proximity? Or is it too early to say what the long-term impact will be?

The one thing that I’m confident about, sadly, is that this is going to kill some colleges. We don’t know which ones, and we don’t know exactly how many. We can do some predicting of who is likely to be most badly injured by this uncertainty, but changes in the landscape of available options is going to force changes in family decision making. And it would not surprise me if we lose dozens, or even hundreds, of small private institutions over the next couple of years.

Do you see families trying to get some insight into college finances? Trying to figure out whether they’re going to be around in four or five years, as they make a decision this year?

Very savvy families are doing that, but a lot of families don’t have a ton of information and don’t necessarily have that wherewithal to view colleges critically—they often feel very solid. You go and see a campus and there are physical buildings there and lots of people working there. They don’t feel fragile, especially if you haven’t visited many colleges. I visit at least 35 campuses a year, so I notice subtle differences that those who have been to two or three campuses in their life wouldn’t notice. I think most families who go there say, “How could it go away?” There’s this giant building, and there’s Old Main right there, with its brick edifice, and its clock tower—they just feel stable. People who are in the industry say, “Well this one’s built on sand” or “Really terrifying demographic forces are coming for this one.” Most parents aren’t in a position to perceive that.

With what we have just been discussing in mind, have tactics changed among the enrollment services offices in ways that are changing the business?

It’s too soon to tell. There are certainly feelers coming out. Institutions are hesitant to be early movers. And what is that going to mean for their brands? There is some hesitancy, understandably, to be an early mover there and risk your brand.

If you’re an institution that is obviously not going to go under, if you’re a public flagship or an extremely generously endowed private institution, you’re not worried that you’re going to go under. We perceive institutional action. What we have within each institution is a whole bunch of individual humans. And individual humans naturally have to act in their own personal interest, which often matches the institution that is hiring them because no one wants to get a reputation for undermining their own employer. But everybody who hopes to have a long career in the enrollment business doesn’t want to go to an institution’s president and say, “We undershot or overshot our goals by X%, but it was a crazy year. Who could possibly have predicted it?” There are going to be some presidents who are a lot more patient than others, but anybody who cares about their own reputation will be very, very worried about trying to get it right for their institution this year.

It’s interesting because—again, this is speculation—even if you are looking at enrollment deposits here in July, in a normal year, that will tell you a lot about who is going to come in the fall. I don’t know that it’s going to be that predictive this year. You could know if you missed your goal by a mile. But the fact that your class looks fine right now, we don’t know what that’s going to mean.

A few weeks ago, the picture for Texas looked really different than it looks right now. So what are the choices going to be? Yesterday morning, I was on the phone with family from Texas, whose child had already planned to go to college in Ireland. And just in the last two weeks, they’re feeling, “Wow, we’re geniuses.” There are all kinds of personal reasons why that was the right path for their child, but we were talking about flights and logistics and he says, “Yeah, I get to move into my dorm two weeks early, and I just have to quarantine for 14 days and then I’m all good. Even though the EU is largely keeping out Americans, they’re letting in folks with student visas.” In March, the concept of a two-week quarantine in a dorm room would have sounded like torture, abuse. And now we’re like, “Only 14 days? What a breeze.”

It’s really only been three months. The shifts in our own perspectives about things like that are so drastic in a short time. I can only imagine that to be an enrollment manager at a university right now has to be just dependent on, “Do I have a reasonable boss or not?” I’m sure there are going to be professionals in the industry who are handling this in particularly brilliant ways. But I can’t see how we can avoid people making smart, informed guesses and guessing wrong in ways that hurt the institution. I just don’t see how it’s their fault.

When I was on a board of a university, our enrollment outlook, including what the number of students in the dorms was going to be, the number of students in the classrooms was going to be, and what the revenue was going to look like until the second week of classes, was unclear until the second week of classes. No matter what analytics they tried to do. It really is an art and a science.

We’re modeling the whims of teenagers. That’s the business. We can’t complain to anybody. We’re in the teenager business. That’s the reality of the industry. I hope we all cut one another some slack, and that other departments in universities do the same.

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