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COVID-19 Is Upending College Enrollment As Procrastinators Wait To Sign Up

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Occidental College first-year students and their families on campus move-in day in 2019. (Marc Campos/courtesy Occidental College)
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The fall semester’s online classes begin this morning at Cal State Northridge, Occidental College and other schools in Southern California, and administrators are already seeing a new enrollment trend: an increasing number of students waiting until the last minute to sign up for classes.

These so-called “late deciders” are upending the schools’ projections for fall enrollment, which could lead to a big financial hit as slots held for students who applied and were admitted reconsider their enrollment plans.

In the last few weeks, Cal State Northridge student advisors say about 120 first-year students who’d been admitted have finally come forward to enroll.

“The mother in me is, like, ‘Why didn't you take care of this before?’” said Geraldine Sare, director of the university’s student advising office.

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She said the chaos of these students’ senior year of high school led them to consider forgoing college. And they’re taking advantage of the university’s eased deadlines for enrollment.

There are also about 70 students who committed to attend but now say they won’t.

“They're saying personal reasons or financial reasons and you know we don't want to go further with that conversation,” Sare said.

Freshman enrollment is down at Northridge and other campuses. In addition to extending enrollment deadlines, Northridge is being more generous with requests to enroll in the spring semester.

Good enrollment management is critical to the financial outlook for higher ed institutions. But so is more aggressive recruitment of students who have historically been overlooked by universities.

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

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