On March 16, the Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings hosted a webinar to address how institutions of higher education have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and what this might mean for their futures. Melanie Muenzer, Stephanie Cellini, William Serrata, and Doug Shapiro joined Michael Hansen to discuss the recent drop in enrollment rates, the potential rise of for-profit institutions, and how universities are engaging students during the pandemic.
The conversation began with the panelists describing the recent shifts in higher education enrollment during the pandemic. Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, highlighted the fact that undergraduate enrollments have decreased across the board. Community colleges have withstood the worst of these changes, with 9.5% fewer students starting the spring semester relative to last year. This is the same rate of decline they had last fall. The exception to this pattern is for-profit institutions, where enrollments jumped by almost 4% this spring. A particularly troubling data point that Shapiro shared was the relatively larger decrease in enrollment among Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, especially at community colleges. (The National Student Clearinghouse’s full report on spring term’s higher education enrollment can be found here).
William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College (EPCC), echoed Shapiro’s numbers, saying that he had seen a drop in enrollment of about 12.5%. Most of his students are Hispanic, he said, and their numbers show a heavy enrollment loss among those attending college for the first time. But Serrata was also hopeful, indicating that career and technical education enrollment has consistently increased at EPCC both in the fall and spring. “We are seeing that students want to enroll in programs that lead them directly into the workforce,” he stated.
Stephanie Cellini, a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings and professor at George Washington University, noted that these undergraduate enrollment declines run contrary to what we have come to expect during a typical recession. Usually, when the job market contracts, people tend to further their education because current job prospects and salaries worsen. When enrolling in a post-secondary institution, an individual is relinquishing a lower expected salary during a recession than at a time of high economic growth.
Melanie Muenzer, chief of staff to the Office of the Undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, communicated Secretary Miguel Cardona’s top priorities to attempt to reverse these trends:
- Create pathways for students from high school into postsecondary education and into good jobs.
- Ensure college is accessible—with an emphasis on tackling the student debt crisis, which disproportionately affects Black students.
- Support students during the pandemic and open campuses safely.
The conversation then shifted to the approximately $40 billion allocated for higher education by the American Rescue Plan. Serrata indicated that his institution has received funding, but they have still cut their budget by around $10 million. He hopes that spending these funds will be “more flexible” than what last year’s CARES Act allowed.
Cellini was concerned about the rise in for-profit institution enrollment. She cited research showing these graduates have a “lower earning potential” and higher loan-default rate than students from other post-secondary pathways. For-profit institutions have focused a significant portion of their budget on advertising, Cellini continued. “Community Colleges need more support for their outreach” so they can regain the current enrollment losses.
All agreed that for these trends to be reversed, vaccine uptake is critical. MSIs and HBCUs can play a role in the vaccination efforts among historically underserved communities, Muenzer argued. Serrata noted that educational institutions have required vaccines to attend campuses before.
Finally, the panel expressed concerns about the future, especially on the difficulty for students to get back on track if they don’t enroll in higher education as soon as they finish high school. Another worrying issue that stems from these enrollment trends is the potential widening of racial earnings gaps when fewer graduates from underrepresented minorities enter the labor market. Cellini highlighted that “it is still worth” getting a four-year degree. Shapiro concluded by arguing, “If you are unemployed and are able to further your education, even if you have to borrow, it’s a good time to do it.”