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Colleges Respond to Enrollment Cliff

Published Wednesday Apr 28, 2021

Author Sheryl Rich-Kern

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.”

Ryan Farquhar, right, and Liam Grant show a rail speeder project in progress. Courtesy photo.

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.

Eyeing the plummeting K-12 population, board members at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown decided to attract adult learners with the college’s first graduate offering in criminal justice. “It’s not in our wheelhouse to become a huge university,” says President Joseph Favazza, but he acknowledges that Saint Anselm is looking to expand revenue streams with graduate and certificate programs.

Students in the Administration of Justice graduate course at Saint Anselm College. Courtesy photo.

Grawe cautions college leaders to strategize beyond recruitment efforts. The unpleasant math, he says, is that there really are fewer students. “We have to talk about access broadly or we’re just talking about a zero-sum game where I grab a student that you got last year.”

Franklin Pierce University President Kim Mooney knows what her college, with campuses in Rindge and Manchester, is up against: fewer traditional-aged students seeking college degrees and competition with the Boston market. Against these odds, faculty and staff reviewed the school’s academic offerings to more carefully meet market and student demands.

This resulted in the launch of an accelerated master’s program in nursing in 2020 at the satellite Manchester campus. It targets those with bachelor’s degrees or higher in another field. Once completed, graduates are prepared to assume leadership roles in health care organizations.

Students in the Master’s Entry Program in Nursing at Franklin Pierce University. Courtesy photo.

“We knew there was a shortage,” says Mooney, “especially in our rural regions of health care providers, and now in light of COVID, it is more imperative than ever we continue to create and offer these innovative programs that prepare students for success.”

Linking academic programs to the needs of the health care industry has been a buffer against the pandemic, says Sue Stuebner, president of Colby-Sawyer College in New London. Last year, the college announced an up to $3.2 million investment from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, the state’s largest private employer. The agreement, which launched with an initial installment of $750,000 followed by another million in 2021, supplied the college with the faculty and clinical support to implement five new health science programs.

A student in the medical science lab at Colby-Sawyer College. Courtesy photo.

“I’m really grateful we started when we did,” says Stuebner. The college typically enrolls 60 first-year nursing students, but this year, enrollment ballooned to nearly 100. Stuebner expects that to climb another 25% by 2022.

Colby-Sawyer added an associate’s program in health sciences and two master’s tracks in nursing. Pending review by the NH Board of Nursing, the college plans to launch an accelerated 15-month nurse completion program this fall.

Since the last recession, when enrollments peaked at NH’s community colleges, the number of traditional degree students has slowed, says Shannon Reid, spokesperson for the Community College System of NH (CCSNH). The decline hovered around 12% for the last four years.

Other niches in enrollment are on the rise: including short-term training programs such as line worker training, LNA, microelectronics and coding bootcamps. CCSNH’s Running Start, a dual college and high school credit-earning program with scholarships available for STEM courses, spiked 40% in the last three years to more than 8,000 students annually.

About half of CCSNH students are not in the traditional 18 to 22 age group. “This is the case in so-called normal times,” says Reid, but the pandemic heightens the need to help people re-skill or change careers.

Competing on Price
Colleges and universities are working on short-term strategies for attracting and retaining students as well as long-term as COVID-19 turned the admissions process upside down. No more campus tours led by enthusiastic volunteers, personal meetings with professors or strolls around the campus greens.

Institutional visits are not likely to resume before this year’s high school graduates receive their acceptances. For fall 2021, students and their families must choose a college sight unseen. The deciding factor is often the calculated return on investment.

Southern NH University (SNHU) in Manchester is making an aggressive case for itself. After the pandemic hit, SNHU leaders accelerated plans to radically slash tuition as much as 50% to $15,000 or $10,000 per year with an updated 2021/22 curriculum that focuses on experiential and project-based learning, connecting courses to careers.

Last fall, SNHU offered incoming freshmen a hard-to-refuse bargain: free for the first year with online-only classes. This was a one-time overture to students already tasked with learning remotely because of public health concerns.

SNHU officials say the dramatic tuition cuts result from, in part, transitioning to a more transparent financial aid process, awarding monies based on need rather than merit. The university is hedging its bets that it can boost enrollment from 3,000 to 4,500 students on its Manchester campus by 2025.

Eclipsed only by Utah-based Western Governor’s University in online enrollments, SNHU can afford this risk because of the revenue it receives from its 100,000 or more remote students.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the unstable economy and the great uncertainty facing higher education, college affordability and accessibility have never been more critical,” stated SNHU President and CEO Paul LeBlanc in a press release in December.

The strategy seems to be paying off. After SNHU’s announcement of free tuition, enrollments on campus spiked 45% compared to fall 2019. The incoming fall first-year class is now the largest in SNHU’s history, with 350 more freshmen than the previous year, according to spokesperson Lauren Keane.

It’s not just private schools that are addressing the affordability crisis. Gov. Chris Sununu recently released his proposed budget, which recommends the University System of NH (USNH) merge with the Community College System of NH to better compete for the shrinking pool of students.

The University of NH (UNH) has one of the highest in-state tuition rates in the country at more than $18,000 per year with fees. To minimize tuition costs, the University System, which comprises UNH, Keene State College, Plymouth State University and Granite State College, is holding resident tuition flat for the 2020-2022 academic years and plans, with elected state officials, to extend the tuition freeze through 2023, according to spokesperson Lisa Thorne.

Students whose family income makes them eligible for federal Pell grants can apply for a program that will cover their tuition for up to four years at any of the USNH institutions, essentially providing a free education. The program, called Granite Guarantee, has been in place since 2017. Close to 1,600 students used it in FY 2020, and the campuses expect that number to increase to at least 2,000 by FY 2021. New Hampshire Community College students transferring into USNH to complete their bachelor’s degree are also eligible. Numerous financial aid and scholarship opportunities can significantly reduce the true cost of attendance.

Plymouth State University is enticing students in Northern New England to its campus after launching the North Woods Connection tuition program about a year ago. The program, open to incoming first-year students from Maine and Vermont, has awarded $73,540 to 44 students. Participating students are eligible to receive program funding throughout their four years at Plymouth State, combining federal, state and institutional grants and scholarships to ensure out-of-pocket costs do not exceed the university’s in-state direct-billed costs.

Declining Revenue
Colleges are also figuring out how to cover basic operating costs in the wake of the coronavirus and an economic downturn.

Federal relief packages certainly helped. The U.S.  Department of Education awarded about $14.2 billion to colleges and universities as part of the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

New Hampshire received around $41 million of those funds, which went a long way in covering institutional costs and helping students finance their education, says Debby Scire, president and CEO of the NH College & University Council. “[The funding] was critical to their vitality,” she says. “Without that, we might be having a really different conversation right at this particular moment.”

Recent legislation provides another $21.2 billion of relief funds to higher education in 2021, of which $90 million lands in the Granite State. These federal bailouts, though, do not make up for the estimated $185 million in losses due to the pandemic, says Scire.

Even before the pandemic, colleges and universities were suffering an ongoing decline in revenues, according to a recent report by Moody’s Investor Services. Moody’s suggests a further drop of 5% to 10% over the next year as universities absorb the shock of the pandemic.

“Reduced enrollment will lead to tuition revenue declines at a majority of public and private universities, while reductions in auxiliary revenue, such as that earned from housing and dining, will also be significant for some,” stated Moody’s analyst Michael Osborn in a press release in December.

Another barometer of financial stress is Forbes’ “College Financial Health Grades.” As of 2019, 177 colleges earned a D grade, a 61% increase from 2013. Only 34 earned an A+. With the exception of Dartmouth College and Southern NH University, NH’s private nonprofit schools earned a grade of C or worse, according to Forbes.

These grim measurements are not necessarily a forecast of doom because they conflict with other estimates. For example, Forbes’ D-graded Franklin Pierce University receives high marks in post-COVID fiscal fitness and resiliency from Edmit, a national educational advising company aimed at consumers. Its co-founder Nick Ducoff says Franklin Pierce sustained a multi-million dollar operating surplus and increased its endowment in recent years.

Edmit gives high marks to St. Anselm and New England College.

Colleges will suffer the battle scars of COVID-19 for years to come. But Scire points out the pandemic also spurs academics to experiment with  programs and technology to keep students engaged and ultimately improve retention and graduation rates.

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