Colleges and COVID-19

by Julie Shannon | Mar 21, 2021
Colleges and COVID-19

With enrollment and revenues taking a dip due to the pandemic, area schools are finding ways to provide students and faculty with tools to succeed in a very different learning environment.

It’s no secret that the higher education sector has struggled mightily during this pandemic. Enrollment has declined all across the country, and the numbers are eye-opening.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, its latest report saw college enrollment decline by 2.5% this past fall which equals around 400,000 students—twice the rate of decline in the year prior.
The report also pointed out that enrollment at community colleges is down 10.1%, as well as at public colleges, which is down 4%.
Rowan College of South Jersey’s President Frederick J. Keating can attest to these statistics, as its enrollment last fall between the Cumberland and Gloucester campuses was down between 8-10%.
“We weren’t down that much in the fall [of 2019], we limped out of the closures last March, April and May then went into summer session. We came back in September and were told county colleges would get the students that would want to stay home, but it didn’t materialize,” Keating says. “Now our numbers are hovering collectively around 15%. A combination of the 8% that was already there with students never coming back and another 7% with regard to the population that was enrolled in the fall but did not elect to continue in the spring.”
Rowan College of Burlington County (RCBC) experienced a similar decline. “Our enrollment for this academic year, from the fall and concluding in the spring, is down from a year ago in double digits and [the] spring [semester] was down the same,” says president Michael Cioce.
Cioce notes RCBC is a member of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges and all county colleges across the state saw a decline in enrollment, with some “significantly worse” than RCBC.
“I think the entire sector was hit hard by COVID-19. I know maybe of only two senior institutions that have managed to eek out close to flat numbers,” Cioce says.
Community colleges were not exactly expecting this much of a dip in enrollment. In fact, all the numbers originally pointed to them bringing in more students.
“Everyone told us the world will come to you; students can stay at home and be safe, it’s a short commute, the price will be good to pay for an online course education,” Keating says. “It’s a problem. It’s an institutional, state and a national problem.”
Many of these students decided to take a gap year, and for numerous reasons.
“A lot of people said, I’m going to sit this year out and I’ll come back when the campuses are alive again and there is some normalcy. And then there’s also the uncertainty when it comes to their health and some were and still are caretakers,” Keating says. “We had students tell us they are taking care of their grandparents and in many cases, they couldn’t afford to bring COVID-19 into their home.”
Rutgers University has also seen a number of its students opt to take a gap year rather than participate in a virtual learning experience. 
“Rutgers enrolls a lot of foreign students and travel was difficult, and a lot of students decided remote learning is not a great option for them,” says Daniel Hart, senior vice chancellor. “If the time zone is 12 hours off and they are expected to be in a live class, it gets complicated.”
While the pandemic caused disruption on many levels, Keating says the timing of it—just a few months before graduation—especially threw off the trajectory for high school students.
“It unraveled and unnerved the traditional student. High schools didn’t see each other through the last few months of the school year and graduations were drive-by and sporadic or none at all. That pulled the fabric of higher education out of that segment that year,” he says. “They were totally disconnected.”
Add to that family members losing jobs and financial insecurity among other things, and Keating calls it a “perfect storm,” and thinks it will take some time for this sector to recover.
“We were getting hit with a health issue—the pandemic—we were also hit with economic and financial damage,” he says. “There was and continues to be unemployment and income was down which pulled a lot of families apart. They had to work a job as best they could find one in order to sustain the home. Then you throw in the social unrest in our country. You take a society where there’s total unrest, you take an economic situation that has so much uncertainty, then throw into it a pandemic that’s worldwide; turn that blender on and that’s what we got. It has literally brought our world down to its knees.”
Rutgers University-Camden’s enrollment is down a few hundred students, but Hart says they are receiving much more applications for next year than usual and the decline in enrollment wasn’t nearly as bad as they predicted it to be.
“Depending on the program, we’re receiving anywhere from 20-100% applications this time compared to last year,” he says. “It’s really unpredictable.
“The worry was, it was going to be a disaster from an enrollment perspective in the fall and it has not been. Much to our surprise, it says something about the ability of faculty to switch effectively to remote teaching. They adapted so quickly and were able to deliver quality education that meets students’ needs.”
RCBC was also able to adapt quickly to remote learning and thinking of every possible way to give its students the best opportunities available.
“We have to be smart in not only what we offer, but where we offer it and how we offer it,” he says. “There’s some positives of the last 12 months that have allowed us to dive deeper into some of our remote course delivery and how we use the technology that exists to ensure high quality educational opportunities for our students.”
Rowan University has experienced the opposite with their enrollment—it actually increased slightly. Fall 2020’s enrollment was 19,678 compared with 19,000 students enrolled in fall 2019. The reason for the increase? Joe Cardona, vice president for university relations, says having a plan in place and being in constant communication with students, parents and the community played a crucial role.
“We were up front with the entire population regarding our planning, showing we had a safe campus and more importantly, we had a plan,” Cardona says. “We had a website that provided a ton of information and had many meetings with hundreds of people. Every week we had different sessions with employees, community members, students and prospective students. All of it paid off and it made it feel like Rowan had a good handle on [the pandemic].”
Stockton University experienced a slight decrease in enrollment this spring compared to last spring, down just 1%.
“Under the circumstances, we are incredibly pleased,” says Dr. Bob Heinrich, chief enrollment management officer. “We’re seeing very strong retention and persistence among our continuing undergraduates. We have seen a shortfall in new students because we attribute that to the pandemic and students sitting out to wait until face-to-face modalities resume, which we are planning to resume this fall.”
Heinrich says Stockton’s fall schedule, which is live, includes over 70% in-person courses and it will have an impact on returning to a sense of normalcy.
Colleges and universities have also had to make drastic cuts due to the pandemic—including  in some cases instituting hiring freezes and putting a hold on certain projects and developments—and they are experiencing an overall revenue loss that is bound to have lasting effects.
“I think it’s going to take more than one year [to recover], even with the vaccines here just down the hall; we’re deeply scarred,” Keating says, but adds that the school has found creative ways to keep employment fully intact.
“We did not want to dismember the institution while holding it together.”
“Obviously when you have enrollment decline there is a corresponding revenue decline. However, there is correlation between instructional costs and headcount as well, meaning we have a very flexible model,” Cioce says. “Our full-time faculty makes up 10% of our total instructional pool and the other 90% are adjuncts and professionals. As enrollment grows, we find people to teach courses. As enrollment declines, we can constrict that as well. If we’re running less sections, we can be more efficient in the student-to-faculty ratio, and we can avoid the additional costs as well.”
Hart says Rutgers-Camden is being cautious in its planning for next year.
“We have a very uncertain budget situation, but the state has worked effectively as a partner to try to keep the state institutions informed and make sure we could continue delivering high quality education,” he says. “We’re still not sure how everything will work out, we don’t know for sure what will be in the fall. We are cautiously planning for the next fiscal year.”
Rowan lost millions in revenue which also included its Rowan Medicine operations. Cardona says the university was fortunate to receive funding from the CARES Act and were able to distribute money to its students, especially those who had hardships due to the pandemic. “It’s really difficult, but we’ve been able to help students through that through federal aid,” he says.
Heinrich says Stockton also received funding from the CARES Act and they were given $15 million, $5 million which went directly to its students, and an additional $5 million on top of that which will be distributed as a form of stimulus to its students this spring.
“Fortunately, our operating budget reductions have been offset by the federal CARES funding, and we did not end the 2020 fiscal year at a deficit,” Henrich says. “Last year we had reductions of $6.8 million and we refunded students a prorated amount for housing and meal plans when we went completely virtual in the middle of March.
“We also broke ground this fall on the second phase of our campus in Atlantic City, which is another residential complex for 400-plus students. We’re on track to open the fall of 2023 and are very fortunate to keep that moving.”
What the pandemic has taught these area colleges and universities is not just to adapt the challenges thrown their way, but to be amenable to further necessary changes down the road.
“It definitely allowed us to embrace flexibility—when courses are offered, how courses are offered, when students want to be taught, how they want to be taught,” Cioce says. “Even though we’ve always done face-to-face courses, we have a 30-year track record in distance learning, the online options exist and we’ve seen exponential creativity.”
“As much as this has crippled us, it’s also taught us if we take our time to get past fear and impact and look at what we have to do to survive, that much of that survival technique and methodology can be taken to the next phase of reopening. Where do we go from here? We’ve spent enough time looking back, we have to look forward,” Keating says.
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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 11, Issue 2 (February 2021).

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Author: Julie Shannon


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