Late Deciders, Late Withdrawals: The Headaches Of Predicting Fall College Enrollment

The Matador Advising Hub helps CSU Northridge students enroll in and earn a degree. (CSUN screenshot)

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Administrators at California State University, Northridge are seeing a new enrollment trend: an increasing number of students who are waiting until the last minute to sign up for classes.

In the weeks leading up to the first day of class today, administrators have received emails from about 120 first-year students who had been accepted to the university, but didn't commit to enrolling. Many now say they want to register after all.

"The mother in me is, like, 'Why didn't you take care of this before?'" said Geraldine Sare, director of CSUN's Matador Advising Hub, which provides a variety of support services to students.

Sare and other officials had expected about 4,000 to 5,000 first-year students to enroll in time for today's start of classes. That number is down about 1,000, she said. But CSUN, like other colleges, waits a few weeks into the semester to conduct a final census.

Sare said she believes some of these prospective students resigned themselves to at least temporarily forgoing college after a disrupted and chaotic senior year of high school.

Students walk across the California State University, Northridge campus prior to the pandemic. (Andrew Cullen for LAist)

"They just didn't think a lot of things would go through, so they figured they won't start this fall, or they might go to a community college," she said.

CSUN has received emails in the past few weeks from about 70 students who had committed to enrolling in May but have since decided to withdraw.

"The general reason is they're saying personal reasons or financial reasons," said Sare, "and, you know, we don't want to go further with that conversation."

The unstable nature of CSUN's first-year student enrollment sheds light on how COVID-19 is shaping students' college plans, and leading some campuses to change enrollment deadlines and adjust projections of how many students will enroll.

FALL ENROLLMENT IMPLOSION PREDICTED

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the economy and was expected to upend fall college enrollment. While the dire predictions haven't come to pass at some Southern California colleges and universities, COVID-19 has disrupted the usual enrollment management process.

A report last April by the consultant company McKinsey said surveys indicated that 20% of freshman students would forgo the first year of college altogether. As the months passed and COVID-19 remained a serious threat to public health, higher education officials decided to keep classes online for the fall. The conventional wisdom was that first year students would attend community colleges to save money, or defer their enrollment for one year.

Besides examining public agency health directives to help them decide whether they were going to open in-person classes, college officials spent a lot of time studying how their enrollments would be affected.

While the bigger, richer research universities appear to be weathering the enrollment storm, smaller schools are struggling to fill available slots.

"Students are willing to go online for a while in order to get that degree," said Jerry Lucido, an education researcher at USC and director of the university's Center for Enrollment Research Policy and Practice. "Less selective private colleges and regional publics are struggling more to meet their numbers ... they can't dip easily into their applicant pool to take more students and they have to be much more creative."

McKinsey said universities had moved deadlines and created payment plans for families to make enrollment more attractive.

Occidental College first-year students and their families on move-in day in Aug. 2018. (Marc Campos/courtesy Occidental College)

At Occidental College, a small liberal arts college in Northeast Los Angeles, administrators predicted they'd have 535 first-year students for the fall semester. That's down about 20%. Occidental granted 90 incoming freshmen deferred enrollment until the fall of next year. The college begins its semester online today.

"If you're a first-year student and this is going to be your introduction to the college life and the college experience, and your first semester is not going be on campus, I certainly can understand why some families opted to take a gap year," said Vince Cuseo, Occidental's dean of admission.

A spokesman for Cal State Long Beach said total enrollment for the fall is predicted to be 1,000 students higher than last year. However, enrollment of international students is down 15% due to travel restrictions.

But first-year enrollment appears to be down on that campus. Cal State Long Beach maintains a public data website where the university posts enrollment figures daily. As of Aug. 21, 361 first-year students had enrolled for the fall 2020 semester, according to the data. That's 103 fewer than the same day last year.

UC Irvine said it's received significantly fewer deferral requests for the coming quarter than last year. But the university has not loosened its deferral policies as Occidental College and CSUN have.

"I think that the strength of our plans for remote instruction, our messaging, and the Chancellor's leadership on the issues helped many applicants understand that they had a viable and safe option for enrollment this year," Dale Leaman, executive director of UCI's Office of Undergraduate Admissions, said in an email.

It's taken a lot of work for colleges and universities to get close to their enrollment figures. Now their challenge is to create an engaging and enriching online college experience, so students don't get disillusioned and drop out.