The pandemic has impacted universities and students in a myriad of ways. When it comes to student numbers, some contrasting pictures are emerging either side of the Atlantic and beyond.
Enrollment at American universities fell 2.7% in the fall of 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Resource Center (NSRC), which was preceded by a 2.5% drop in the fall of 2020.
The picture is bleaker when you take into account undergraduate figures alone, which fell by 3.1% or 465,300 students on the previous year.
In total, there’s been a 5.1% decline in student numbers—amounting to nearly 1 million— since the fall of 2019.
Freshman intake stabilized following a sharp fall in 2020, up by about 8,000 students or 0.4%, largely attributed to the popularity of private, non-profit four-year colleges. But the freshman class of 2021 was nowhere near the size of pre-pandemic levels seen in 2019, with 213,400 or 9% fewer students taking this academic route.
Is it entirely down to Covid-19's impact?
The pandemic and the change lockdowns brought to learning can perhaps shoulder a proportion of this blame; but with a return to in-person learning across the board in the fall of 2021, the lack of appeal in online classes can’t be the only factor.
The uncertainty at the time of applications being submitted between November 2020 and January 2021, for the most part, will have differed between states and may have discouraged many potential students, despite the promise the vaccine rollout posed.
Four states bucked the trend of falling enrollment: Arizona, Colorado, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.
But online-only institutions also saw dives in both undergraduate and graduate uptake, which dipped by 8.9% and 8.2%, respectively.
So it seems one of the greatest successes to come out of universities during lockdown—virtual learning—has not inspired a sea-change towards a more frugal and flexible approach to higher education that some predicted or feared.
What about Covid-19's impact on purse strings?
This certainly looks as though it’s had a strong bearing, if you look at the breakdown of enrollment between private, public, and non-profit institutions.
A decline of 3.8% or 251,400 students starting at public four-year institutions was seen last year, compared with a decrease of 2.2% or 58,700 students at private, non-profit, 4-year colleges.
Meanwhile, private, for-profit institutions suffered a dramatic drop of 11% (or 65,500 students), more than three times more than in the 2020 fall, when the enduring ramifications of the pandemic wasn’t apparent at application stage.
But with the cost of study such a huge factor, it’s surprising to have not seen more interest in online learning, allowing students to save on the accompanying lifestyle and living expenses.
The obstacles to international students coming to the US to study, due to Covid-related travel and visa restrictions, has also impacted figures.
It will be interesting to see if this is an area of growth moving forward now that barriers are starting to lift.
Are young people turning to employment instead?
Emerging from the pandemic, the US economy grew faster than expected in 2021—thus, perhaps, creating more opportunities for lucrative employment and greater appeal than years of studying.
Indeed, enrollment declines were seen back in 2013 when economies started bouncing back following the protracted recession which began in 2008.
Historically, uptake tends to be higher during periods of economic instability due to the lack of other career routes.
The picture elsewhere
Meanwhile, in the UK, new student numbers are steady and growing.
Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) reports a 5% increase on applications to higher education in 2021 compared to 2020, amounting to a total of nearly 607,000 people across all ages.
With just under 492,005 of these applications accepted, that’s an increase of 1% in successful ones.
The UK also saw a surge in students starting first degree courses in 2020, up 8% on the previous year, according to figures by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
This all comes against a backdrop of increasing numbers of top qualifying grades at A-level, which may perhaps or in part explain why UK higher education is bucking the trend seen in the US.
UCAS also cites an increasing 18-year-old population as a factor in the growing numbers, with 27,235 more placed in 2021 than in 2020.
But there has been a steep decline in EU students studying in the UK, which has impacted overall figures.
The outlook is positive in the UK when it comes to higher education, and growth is expected to continue. Clare Marchant, Chief Executive at UCAS, cited an anticipated 1 million applicants by 2026.
In Australia, however, enrollment is falling, in a similar picture to the US. The country has been hit particularly hard by the lack of international students taking up study there due to the pandemic (2021 enrollment figures aren’t yet available).
What is the UK doing differently?
So what lessons can we learn from the UK?
1. Student satisfaction and employability
To begin with, many UK universities use a student satisfaction and employability scores when promoting courses (similar to pathways data in the US). It is required by law for this data to be displayed on course pages so students can quickly see the return-on-investment from enrolling.
The National Student Survey (NSS) is an annual census of all final year undergraduate students at UK universities that’s been around for nearly two decades. With a response rate of 70%, universities and colleges can figure out what’s working and what’s not, and respond accordingly.
Following COVID-19, employability in a competitive market is a crucial concern for students, and higher education institutions need to be able to embed employability within their degree.
With a solid NSS undertaken every year, universities and colleges can adapt and respond faster to student expectations.
2. Tuition and accommodation costs
Secondly, generally speaking, the cost of tuition and accommodation in the US is seen to be higher than in the UK. There’s a huge range of tuition costs across both countries, but steep tuition fees in the US may be hindering recruitment there, while in the UK tuition and affordable accommodation may be playing a part in the enrollment trends there.
3. Smart, user-friendly course search
A last factor that can help improve falling enrollment trend is strong course search features on university and college websites, helping students to find the course they're interested while researching from home. The right course finder can make a huge difference for students who want to compare programs and courses and find the right fit.
Looking to the future
While there’s lots to consider, and many factors behind falling recruitment—particularly in the US—there is also plenty to be optimistic about.
Freshman numbers, for example, are bouncing back, showing that young people still hold the opportunity to fly the nest to college sacrosanct.
And for those who have opted out of this route for the time being, it doesn’t look as though they’ve turned to online learning instead.
Digital marketing has a big role to play here in selling this university experience to students, regardless of background or origin—whether to domestic or international recruits.
When there is growing temptation to take up employment right out of school, prospective students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, need to be convinced of the long-term benefits of a university education.
We can no longer rely on a revolving door of youngsters considering university a rite of passage, when so many economic challenges and alternative temptations are at play.
A focus on better representation across ethnicities, socio-economic backgrounds, and abilities will help institutions reach a bigger cross-section of prospective students.
The future looks challenging, but bright.
What patterns have you seen in enrolment figures at your institution in the past couple of years? And how are you adapting your digital marketing policies as a result?
We’d love to hear in the comments below or get in touch with our friendly team.