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Colleges Emerging from Pandemic with New Challenges

June 07, 2021

As parents and prospective students assess the college landscape post-pandemic, colleges themselves are doing the same thing. Remote learning has changed campus life drastically as faculty across the U.S. have done more and more of their work and lecturing from home. A recent article by Lindsay Ellis in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that “Some campus leaders now believe that flexible work-from-home policies will make or break their future hiring and retention efforts, particularly in competitive fields like technology. Campuses that don’t embrace those policies may suffer, losing talent to other campuses and to the private sector,” according to President and Chief Executive Officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.  

The changes underway are not simple to install, the Chronicle article notes. “A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn’t make sense,” says Helena Rodrigues, head of the HR department at the University of Arizona. While remote work may work well in some situations, in-person could be the best fit for others, and it can be a delicate balancing act to satisfy the many elements that make up a college or university.  

A question that begs an answer: Where do the students fit in with all of this? Lisa Brommer, Associate VP for human resources at Wesleyan University, is quite emphatic: “We’re first and foremost a residential campus.” 

Decline in Enrollment 

Nevertheless, the changes triggered by the pandemic could be accompanied by some longer-term trends. According to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment this past fall declined by 3.6% from the fall of 2019. That's more than 560,000 students and twice the rate of enrollment decline seen last year. Most of that decline occurred at community colleges where enrollment fell by more than 10%, or more than 544,000 students. While that may be a one-time phenomenon, other social factors are at work. 

Nathan Grawe, an economist at Carleton College in Minnesota, predicts that the college-going population will drop by 15% between 2025 and 2029 and continue to decline by another percentage point or two thereafter, with larger prestigious colleges more likely to escape the turmoil and even benefit from it. However, in an article from The Hechinger Report, Jill Barshay observes that it’s possible that Grawe’s predictions are incorrect. She says, “Economists predicted a similar drop in college enrollments in the 1980s following the baby boom generation. Instead, the college-going rate skyrocketed. Women started going to college in larger numbers. More young Americans wanted a college degree as it became more difficult to get a good job with only a high school diploma. Even older Americans went back to school.” Still, Grawe warns it would be risky for colleges not to prepare for some downturn. 

Tackling the Cost Problem  

John F. Pearson, a CPA and Financial Planner who oversees the Barnum Financial Center for College Planning, has an interesting idea to deal with one of the ever-present college issues: cost.  


“I think the pandemic has accelerated the world of higher education to a turning point. I would like to see colleges develop their capabilities to offer certificate programs in addition to degree programs. That way, in the job market of the future, people can hopefully spend less for the initial college experience but perhaps return again and again for additional certifications as the needs of the economy change. If some of those programs can be offered online as opposed to the residential model of college, so be it.” 


Despite the costs of college, though, there are ways to get financial assistance. Sallie Mae, the student loan organization, counsels that “Although planning and paying for college on your own can seem daunting at first, it is something that many students successfully do. Between submitting the Free Application for Financial Student Aid (FAFSA), applying for scholarships, and taking out federal or private student loans to cover college costs, there are many resources available for prospective college students looking to pay for school with or without the help of their parents.” 


COVID-19 has certainly brought about many changes to colleges and universities across the country ranging from remote classes to decreased enrollment to even the possibility of alternatives to degree programs. Higher-educational institutions would be wise to prepare for the post-pandemic landscape keeping their students first and foremost in mind.