116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The higher education term “summer melt” is used to describe a phenomenon of high school seniors intending to go to college who don’t actually enroll in the fall.
But “COVID-19 melt” could be this year’s turn of phrase after thousands of students who did show up for classes last fall left midstream after finding themselves in a pandemic-plagued college experience nearly unrecognizable to the one they had imagined.
“People lost their jobs, they lost their businesses,” Brent Gage, University of Iowa associate vice president for enrollment management, said during a panel discussion for a Gazette Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week on higher education held this past spring.
“And so while they may have been absolutely ready to step into higher education, obviously their financial picture was dramatically different,” Gage said. “That caused a lot of turbulence in the system.”
The total UI enrollment of 28,320 in spring 2021 was down 7 percent from the previous fall’s 30,448, which was down nearly 3 percent from the previous fall and 6 percent from a peak of 32,323 in fall 2017.
Iowa State University’s spring 2021 tally of 29,368 dropped nearly 8 percent from its fall 2020 count of 31,825 — which had dropped 12 percent from its peak of 36,353 in fall 2016.
And the University of Northern Iowa in the spring reported 8,680 students, a 9 percent drop from fall’s 9,522 — which was about 20 percent below the 12,000-some enrollment UNI sustained for years before starting its steady slide in fall 2018.
Enrollment across all three universities dropped again this fall, according to new numbers made public Sept. 9, showing a slide beginning in fall 2017 and worsening when COVID-19 upended the higher education experience.
- The University of Iowa reported a total enrollment this fall of 29,909 students — down 539, or 2 percent, from last fall’s 30,448. It’s down 7 percent from 2017’s 32,323.
- Iowa State University reported a total enrollment of 30,708 students — down 1,117, or 4 percent, from last fall’s 31,825. It’s down 15 percent from 2017’s 35,993.
- And the University of Northern Iowa reported a total enrollment of 9,231 students — down 291, or 3 percent, from last fall’s 9,522. It’s down 22 percent from 2017’s 11,907.
For the campus’ freshmen classes only, the UI for the first time this fall is not counting those students who withdrew between the first day of classes and the official census date — putting its new class of 2025 at 4,521. When compared with the same date last year, the UI this fall saw an 11-freshman increase from 4,510.
ISU reported a 6 percent uptick in “first-year students,” from last fall’s 5,071 to 5,387 — recovering some of the 9 percent hit that class took last year.
And UNI reported a 5 percent climb in “this fall’s new freshman enrollment,” from 1,482 to 1,554 — including an increase in both Iowa and out-of-state residents, according to a UNI news release.
Evidence that many of this year’s losses were pandemic propelled exists in canceled housing contracts and midsemester dropouts.
UI Housing and Dining, for example, reported 912 contract cancellations between Aug. 1 and Dec. 10, 2020 — more than two-thirds of which came after fall classes started. The number was four times the cancellations during the same period in 2019.
UI officials in late October 2020 reported 301 students had unenrolled through the first nine weeks of the semester, compared to 243 over the same period the year before.
Iowa State reported 391 withdrawals in the fall, a slight uptick over 2019. And UNI reported 351, down from 2019’s 379 — possibly due to the steeper enrollment losses at the start of the semester and the fact UNI kept more of its instruction in-person.
Nationwide, first-year student enrollment at four-year public universities in fall 2020 was down nearly 14 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Total undergraduate enrollment was 4 percent below the previous year — hitting community colleges hardest with a 9.4 percent drop.
Broken down by demographic group, international students saw the sharpest decline of 14 percent, followed by Native American and Indigenous Alaskan students with an 11 percent drop. Black students and white students both experienced an 8 percent decline, followed by Hispanic students with a 6 percent drop and Asian students with a 4 percent decline.
The Midwest suffered the biggest blow, with nearly 6 percent fewer undergraduate students in fall 2020 compared to 2019, followed by the West and South, which both reported a 4 percent fall, and the Northeast, which had 3 percent fewer undergraduate students.
Those dramatic drops compounded years of declining enrollment and accelerated a looming enrollment cliff projected to arrive around 2025 after the 2008 recession slowed the national birthrate, according to Madeleine Rhyneer, dean of enrollment management for EAB, a Washington, D.C.-based company with more than 1,900 partner schools, colleges and universities that provides support for student and institutional recruiting, retention and success.
The pandemic “accelerated the cliff that we knew was coming,” Rhyneer said. “COVID pointed out, or exacerbated, some of that shift that enrollment leaders at public and private schools across the country have been seeing.”
Gap year recovery
For campuses unaware and unprepared for the coming cliff, the coronavirus’ disruption shocked them to attention. And it compelled admissions and enrollment officials to undertake the challenging work of bringing back to campus students they had lost — along with those in high school they haven’t yet seen.
“But we also know that once you stop out, especially if your primary motivation for stopping out was to get a job or some money to help your family, we know that it's hard to come back,” Rhyneer explained.
The most concerning group of students was those who graduated high school, never entered a college system, and instead got a job to help their family. Students in this group differ from those who started college and left with COVID-19 complaints — too few in-person classes, no extracurricular experiences such as football games, and mask and distancing mandates.
And they differ from the “gap year” takers of yore who paused their academic endeavors to travel, according to Rhyneer.
“You can’t go to Europe because you can’t travel,” she said. “So for the kids who were like, hey, we just don't have enough money and my mom and dad both lost their job … when you come from those kind of constrained financial circumstances, it's really hard to get people back into college.”
So what are the campuses doing?
Some in major metropolitan areas are trying billboards, digital advertising on Pandora or YouTube and mailers.
For students who started and stopped, Rhyneer said, campuses still have fresh contact information and are reaching out via email and text messages. A lot of schools — such as the University of Iowa — are eliminating some of the red tape and complexity that can come with re-enrolling.
They’re reinstating paused or never-accepted admissions and scholarships both for students who started and stopped and for those who never started at all.
“If you admitted a student for last fall and she or he didn't enroll, a lot of schools are actually reaching out to those students saying, ‘Hey, we don't know what your life has been like this last year, but we want to let you know that if you're ready to start here, we're here for you,’ ” Rhyneer said.
“We're ready to help you.”
UI admissions officials offered a deferral year for students who decided, for example, “I’m going to wait a year because I still want to have that first-year campus experience,” according to Associate Vice President Gage.
“I want to come in and go through orientation and move in, and I'm just going to wait a year. I'm going to take a gap year,” Gage said. “We were able to work with those students and accommodate that process.”
The reasons the Midwest felt COVID-related enrollment losses harder than others include demographics and geography. During the pandemic, many students chose to stay closer to home, Gage said during his March 30 Iowa Ideas In-Depth Week panel discussion.
“That's just because there's been so much uncertainty about what the future is going to look like,” he said. “For a university like Ohio State, that benefits them tremendously. But when you're the fifth-largest city in the 30th largest state, that doesn't help us tremendously.”
Bigger schools, such as Ohio State University in Columbus, the nation’s 14th largest city, have a larger crop of local students from which to recruit.
Iowa’s increasing number of first-generation and minority students also comes into play — in that fewer in those groups are predisposed to pursue higher education, Mark Wiederspan, executive director of state-run Iowa College Aid, said during that same Iowa Ideas discussion.
“Students and the vast majority of people just don't wake up one day and say, ‘I'm going to go to college,’ ” he said. “For the vast majority of people, going to college is a process.”
Potential students and their families spend years assessing price, academic pursuits and the campus-life experience.
“But for many students in rural areas, the idea of going to college is just not on their mind,” Wiederspan said. “Many of them are just not aware of their options after high school. For them, it might be, ‘I'm going to go straight into the workforce and college is not necessarily an option.’”
Adding COVID-19 to the mix — fraught with financial challenges, new family issues, health concerns and campus-experience unknowns — compounds that predisposition.
“It’s, my family's been hit by COVID. My father's been furloughed. Or I'm being furloughed. I can't afford to go to college,” Wiederspan said. “So it's really trying to focus on that predisposition that even if it’s part time, college can still be a viable option.”
One way to bring prospective students into the college universe is to educate them on available financial aid — especially given the pandemic has depleted so many families’ resources.
In fact, two of the strongest indicators a student intends to enroll in college historically is taking the ACT or SAT college admissions exams and filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — commonly referred to as FAFSA.
Because test taking typically demands students show up in person, many campuses scrapped the ACT or SAT from its list of admissions requirements — at least during COVID-19 — negating that as an indicator.
And with so many students facing new pandemic-related challenges — from family finances to health problems to online school — fewer prioritized filing the FAFSA or had face-to-face time with academic counselors, who might have encouraged them to do so.
Others might have put it off due to questions of whether they even wanted to go to college now. And gains Iowa had made in increasing FAFSA filing rates slipped — as they did in most states nationally.
“We were on an upward trend, and the pandemic — just like it changed everything — changed that trajectory. We saw a drop,” according to Elizabeth Keest Sedrel, spokeswoman with the state's Iowa College Aid. “So now the goal is to offset the losses during the pandemic and get us back on that upward trend line.”
An Iowa-specific FAFSA-filing tracker mid-May showed about 48 percent of spring 2021’s high school graduating class had completed a FAFSA, down about 4 percentage points from the previous year’s 52 percent through the same period, according to Iowa College Aid.
Among schools in the Linn and Johnson county area, for example, only one — Washington High School in Cedar Rapids — was reporting an uptick in FAFSA filings at that time, with a 6 percent bump to 49 percent.
The rest all showed losses — including a 19 percent decrease at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High, a 12 percent drop at Marion Linn-Mar High, a 10 percent drop at Cedar Rapids Jefferson and a 7 percent drop at Iowa City High.
A national FAFSA tracker using slightly different numbers showed about 49 percent of Iowa’s seniors had filed a FAFSA as of May 7, matching the national average and representing a 5 percent decline from the year before.
That ranked Iowa 24th in its percent of filing seniors and 21st best in its percentage change. Excluding Puerto Rico as an outlier — due to hurricane-driven declines in the previous year — only four states as of May 7 had seen filing increases — Illinois, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
Where the FAFSA filing season typically starts out strong in October and November, this year was different — with more than usual coming in March. And Iowa College Aid’s Sedrel said, “It would not surprise me if we saw more FAFSAs filed late in the cycle,” which ends June 30.
With the FAFSA and testing gauges gone, admissions officials and experts this spring were in wait-and-see mode about how fall 2021 enrollment would shake out.
In March, UI’s Gage said he typically has a team of data scientists working with complex predictive models capable of projecting — to a relatively accurate degree — upcoming fall enrollment, helping with housing, orientation and budget planning.
“In talking to my colleagues around the country, all of that has been wiped away,” he said. “Bottom line for us … the game is going to go late into the fourth quarter, just because there are so many variables this year that are making it unpredictable.”
Gage noted how eliminating test requirements also changed applicant behavior — especially among strong students who don’t feel as strong in test-taking.
“If all of a sudden I'm not a great test taker but I'm a pretty good student, then maybe I can get into XYZ school,” Gage said. “If you look at the elite institutions that have removed the test option this year, they've seen anywhere from 25 to almost 80 percent increase in applications.”
COVID-19 impact on students
In competing against more campuses for a shrinking pot of students, the UI, ISU and UNI early in the spring semester announced fall 2021 would be back to normal — for the most part. And they revived on-campus tours and in-person experiences for shopping students.
But the speed at which COVID-19 upended life as most Americans knew it kept many students — including new high school graduates and those who pressed pause on their academic endeavors last year — from jumping back into the collegiate fray, despite university assurances.
“We have students waiting longer and longer and longer to try to determine if they're going to be open, and what COVID means, and what's my family's financial situation?” Gage said. “So their applicant behavior is much, much later.”
A national Google survey of 2021 high school seniors looking at college found nearly one-third planned to wait “until the last possible minute to make a decision,” Gage said.
“So how many students will we have this fall? We hope we have a bunch,” he said. “But exactly how many, this is going to be the single hardest class to predict in the 20 years I’ve been doing this.”
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