Coronavirus impacts on higher education: Decrease in enrollment? Campuses open in fall?

Stock image | Photo by Unsplash, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Just three weeks into the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, half of high school seniors and college students reported their family’s financial situation had been impacted by the pandemic, and 1 in 5 high school seniors said they are not likely to enroll into college in the fall.

Southern Utah University homecoming parade, Cedar City, Utah, Sept. 28, 2019 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

This data came from a National Student Survey conducted in April by research firm SimpsonScarborough to study the impacts of the coronavirus on higher education. Its findings suggest that enrollment numbers will continue to decline as further financial fallout continues to affect American families.

In looking at Utah, Interim Commissioner for Utah System of Higher Education David Woolstenhulme told St. George News they don’t anticipate a big drop in enrollment in fall semester, but this could change depending on what happens with the coronavirus between now and fall. As for summer enrollments, numbers are down across the state, he said.

The board of regents, commissioners and task force are continuing to follow guidelines set by state and local health departments to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff. As of now, campuses across the state are expecting to be open come fall.

“Our plan is to have our campuses open this fall and maybe as early as late in the summer – start some of the summer classes face to face,” he said.

But it’s likely that school on campus won’t look the same as it did before the pandemic.

Stock image of students studying online, courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

“Obviously they’ll look a little bit different than they did in January,” Woolstenhulme said. “Is that going to be less people in a section of a class? Is that going to be more handwashing stations? Is that going to be wiping down the classrooms between each class?”

Wearing masks could also be part of the recommendations put into place by administrators and the COVID-19 task force, he said, and that it’s still too early to know exactly what these will look like.

One of the positive impacts of having to close down schools was opening the avenue toward using online platforms for students and faculty .

“Online is actually growing quite rapidly across the state anyway as students take a mixture – that’s not to say a lot of students are totally to 100 percent online – but what we’re seeing in our institutions is students are actually taking more credits as a full-time student because they can fit in an online class, where maybe before they couldn’t fit it in with their schedule.”

In recent years, Woolstenhulme said they’ve seen an increase in full-time equivalencies because of online class opportunities that have more flexibility in aligning with different schedules.

Online is definitely not the answer to everything, he added, nor does it replace the benefit of being in the classroom.

Dixie State University students and faculty work alongside members of the Southern Utah community to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day through volunteering at Habitat for Humanity, St. George, Utah, Jan. 20, 2020 | Photo courtesy of Lizzie Range, St. George News

Moving forward, he said they plan to continue to offer a variety of classes – face-to-face, online, hybrid and other delivery methods – in order to best fit the various needs of the students.

In the case of a resurgence of the coronavirus in the fall, as some researchers are predicting, Woolstenhulme said they are better situated to pivot in the case they see a spike in coronavirus cases.

“We were hit right over the head with this last one in February,” he said. “But we will be much better planned and prepared to transition now that we’ve done it once. We want education to move on, but we will always put the safety of our faculty and staff and students first.”

Whether or not there will be a decrease in returning students in Utah colleges and universities is difficult to know at the moment because early registration happened before the pandemic and might not reflect fall enrollment, he said. They should have a better idea in about a month.

In the meantime, Woolstenhulme said the institutions are reaching out to students in making sure they know what their plans are in moving back to face-to-face classes in the fall semester. Financial support is also being addressed as part of the CARES ACT.

He said he hopes students do continue their education. If they do drop out, the longer they’re out the less likely they are to return to finish.

Sewing masks at Southern Utah University, Cedar City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Southern Utah University, St. George News / Cedar City News

Darlene Dilley, Dixie State University assistant vice president of enrollment management, told St. George News that due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment leaders around the country are closely monitoring enrollment numbers and increasing virtual engagement to mitigate any potential losses.

“Here at DSU, we are fortunate that our enrollment continues to trend positively for fall semester,” she said. “We are cautiously optimistic that we will enroll another record class if we continue to progress positively on the statewide risk scale and do not see any setbacks or spikes in cases of coronavirus here in Washington County.”

Vice President of Student Affairs for Southern Utah University Jared Tippets told St. George News that they are still actively enrolling and registering students for fall semester.

“As of today, our enrollment numbers are very strong and are even up a little compared to last year at this point in time,” he said. “However, we also recognize that students will also closely monitor things in the months to come and may adjust their enrollment decision later.”

He said they plan to keep in close contact with all students throughout the summer so they can make decisions that are best for their personal situations as well as their academic and career goals.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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