Colleges Respond to Enrollment Cliff | New England College
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Colleges Respond to Enrollment Cliff

Higher ed analysts have long predicted a spate of closures among colleges and universities due to declining demand and escalating tuition fees. That was before a global pandemic struck with blunt force.

To stave off an apocalyptic vision of empty classrooms and lost revenues, colleges slashed budgets and laid off staff. At the same time, they had to invest in technology for remote learning and coronavirus testing to safeguard students from a highly transmissible virus.

Total enrollment across higher education is down 2.5%, nearly twice the rate of decline in fall 2019, as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Even more striking is a pandemic-injected 13.1% drop among first-time freshmen.

While the number of high school graduates may improve slightly in the next five years, long-term projections for the Northeast from the 10th edition of “Knocking at the College Door” show such growth is not sustainable, and this demographic will shrink by nearly 13% by 2037. That leaves institutions in NH hustling after a slim pool of students.

Pandemic Delays
Ryan Farquhar, a Hollis High School graduate, was accepted into the mechanical engineering program at the University of NH for the fall of 2020. But when the pandemic canceled the authentic campus experience, Farquhar deferred his admission. He is now researching schools farther south. “Being in New Hampshire is not quite what I need right now,” he says. “I need to explore somewhere else.”

Similar stories are playing out across the country. Many families decided to wait out the pandemic, says Mark Kantrowitz, a student loan expert and author of “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.” Their child may have taken a gap year, a leave of absence or decided college is not worth the investment.

Kantrowitz says that only 90% of those who leave college return, and when they do, their financial aid is recalculated, often against their favor, making it less likely they will complete college.

These are troubled times for higher education in the region, but Nathan Grawe, an economics professor at Carleton College in Minnesota and author of “Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education” and the forthcoming “The Agile College,” says colleges can break free from these dire projections by accessing student groups they haven’t in the past.

Reaching New Students
Articulation agreements between community colleges and private four-year colleges reduce barriers to student success while generating enrollment, says Grawe. New England College in Henniker recently broadened its applicant pool by extending its transfer agreement beyond NH’s borders to include any community college graduate in New England. Grawe says colleges may need to redefine their identities to grow and survive.

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