With families out of work this spring because of the coronavirus, and with college courses reduced to prerecorded lectures and Zoom discussions, many experts predicted that enrollment would decline precipitously this fall.
So far, projections at the state’s two research universities, University of Washington and Washington State University, are holding up well.
It’s a different story, though, at Central Washington and Eastern Washington universities, which expect enrollment to fall by 10% or more. Both schools have already started outlining potential budget cuts; Eastern may lay off or reduce hours for as many as 400 employees. And because of the way the pandemic scrambled several application deadlines, some institutions, such as The Evergreen State College, still don’t know what to expect.
In uncertain economic times, students will think twice about spending thousands to go to college, said Jens Larson, associate vice president for enrollment management at Eastern.
Because many students lost immediate access to their support networks — such as high-school counselors who help with financial aid forms — “it is so incredibly hard to work them through the process,” he said.
Washington has one of the lowest college-going rates in the nation, and “we’re particularly concerned with how that’s going to play out across the state with COVID-19,” Larson said. The pandemic is “one of those generational impacts that can really change the prospects of families, and the state as a whole.”
As of mid-June, only about 48% of Washington 12th graders in the class of 2020 had filled out the federal financial-aid form. The National College Attainment Network, which tracks financial-aid completions, ranks Washington 48th out 51 states and the District of Columbia for financial-aid filings.
Eastern Washington expects its annual head count to drop by more than 1,200 students, or about 13% fewer students than enrolled last year.
Administrators there worry about backsliding on a goal to educate more nonwhite, low-income and first-generation students; this year, about 23% of its incoming class is Hispanic/Latino, and the school’s enrollment is four times more diverse than greater Spokane’s population, Larson said. “We take our mission to serve as an access institution pretty seriously,” he said, noting that the school was one of the first institutions in the state to permanently drop the requirement that applicants submit standardized test scores, like the SAT, this spring.
Before the pandemic hit, Central Washington was on track to have a record year for new student enrollment. It had more than 12,000 first-year applicants, a 25% increase from the previous year, and it admitted 86% of them, said Kremiere Jackson, vice president of public affairs for the Ellensburg school, in an email.
So far, the number of students who have accepted an offer of admission is just 2,579 — down 6% from the same time last year. But Jackson cautioned that year-over-year numbers aren’t a good measure because many students may not show up this fall. The university is expecting enrollment to be down by about 10% compared to last year.
Western Washington University, The Evergreen State College and the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus say it’s too early to tell what the fall semester will look like. Evergreen is still enrolling students for September.
The pandemic upended the college calendar. Most years, accepted students have a May 1 deadline to accept an admission offer and enroll for fall, but this year many colleges and universities extended that deadline by a month or more. Many prospective students were hesitant, unsure if campuses would even open to in-person sessions this fall. Most colleges are planning some form of hybrid lessons.
The University of Washington’s Seattle campus stuck to a May 1 deadline, and saw a slight increase in enrollment from last year, with about 7,825 first-year students confirming enrollment for fall 2020. When summer attrition is factored in, the final number will likely be closer to 7,050. Last year, the UW enrolled 6,984 freshmen.
UW’s Bothell campus also had a slight increase, enrolling a little over 1,000 first-time students. Last year, the branch campus enrolled about 900. “The fact that we serve a predominantly regional population of students may be working in our favor,” said Steve Syverson, UW Bothell assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management, in an email. Bothell nearly doubled the number of African American freshmen, from 60 last year to 111 this year. Hispanic students grew from 95 to 133.
All six Washington State University campuses had a slight downturn in applications and admitted more students to compensate. Overall, there’s been a 2.5% decrease in enrollees, although all campuses are still accepting confirmations.
With state revenues down, every two- and four-year school in the state is expecting to have to slash spending, because tuition only pays about half the cost of a college education at public colleges and universities.
Two- and four-year schools are all competing for the approximately 69,000 students who were expected to graduate from Washington public and private high schools this spring. Some of that competition comes from community colleges, which offer a growing number of bachelor of applied science degrees, and they’ve been marketing those programs to high-school students, Jackson said.
There’s one bright spot for colleges: With internships and summer-job opportunities canceled, many students have decided to keep learning over the summer instead. Summer-quarter enrollment was up 13% at Western and 23% at the UW.