Just google, “COVID-19’s Impact on Higher Education,” and a slew of pages will bombard you with information regarding how this unprecedented situation will negatively affect enrollment numbers for colleges and universities around the world. Of course, from a domestic student perspective, this is probably not much cause for alarm – if anything, you may see it as an opportunity to be more likely considered for your top choice universities and have first pick of the classes you planned to register for with no fear of being waitlisted, due to this national projection toward less competition.
As a university employee, however, I have a myriad of thoughts regarding the situation. On the one hand, colleges (including mine) are buckling down, streamlining budgets, and preparing for the worst. (I have been saddened to see so many universities already discussing furloughing their employees.) To be honest, I would have to do more research regarding the data that is being pulled to make these decisions; but, from experience, and assuming that federal financial aid remains an option, I have a few of my own (more instinctual, less data driven) predictions:
(1) I expect enrollment numbers to increase, not decrease. This is especially true for technical and professional degrees. From experience, I saw the surge of enrollment at the community and technical college I worked for soon after the crash of 2008. A well-paying company that employed a large number of locals in mostly blue-collar positions performed massive layoffs. This, in turn, caused an influx of students to the community and technical college in order for those who were laid off to become trained/certified in other fields. Many also decided to pursue a two- or four-year degree, so enrolled to either complete their associate’s degree or to transfer their first two years of core classes to a bachelor’s program.
(2) I am in no way promoting this as a possible solution to unemployment, but the fact remains: with roughly 1 in 4 Americans losing their job or source of income due to COVID-19, many are going to be turning to federal student aid to supplement lost income.
(Speaking of which: if you are a new or returning student, please be sure to go ahead and fill out the FAFSA. It is not required that you accept any loan money that is offered, but I think it is extremely important to at least have your FAFSA on file for the academic years that you plan on being enrolled, regardless as to whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student. Remember, an academic year is from fall to summer, so the 2019-2020 academic year started in fall 2019 and will end after the summer 2020 term. With that in mind, if you plan on taking summer classes, you will need to have your 2019-2020 FAFSA completed and if you will be returning for the 2020-2021 academic year, you will need to fill out that FAFSA as well. I won’t lie: it is a tedious process, but well worth it, as you will not be considered for grant money (if you are an undergraduate student – graduate students are not eligible), cannot apply for Federal Work Study positions, some scholarships, etc. without it.)
(3) Now is the best time to have student debt – assuming there is every really a “good” time. Federal Student Aid repayment options are more affordable than ever (i.e., not required and not incurring interest) with the recent enactment of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and. Economic Security (CARES) Act. (To find out more about how CARES affects students, check out this Forbes article.)
(4) With so many online program options available and nothing else to do while social distancing: why wouldn’t both prospective and current students enroll in classes?
I will end this by saying that I am by no means intending to trivialize the concerns regarding COVID-19’s impact on higher education – many employees, such as those in customer service roles (e.g., custodial workers, cafeteria workers, etc.) will absolutely be negatively impacted if there are no students, faculty, and/or staff on campus. And I cannot even fathom how this is going to impact international student enrollment. However, I do think the majority of colleges and universities are jumping the gun in regard to the presumed negative financial impact of COVID-19.