As the dust settles from an unprecedented year in American higher education, new research is helping institutions understand the extent of COVID-19’s impact on enrollment. The initial results are sobering—and they refute the conventional wisdom that more people enroll in college during times of economic downturn.
According to the most recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse, total enrollment this year fell by more than 600,000 students: the sharpest year-over-year drop in a decade. Community colleges, in particular, bore the brunt of the pandemic’s effects. Across the country’s two-year institutions, enrollment fell by 9.5 percent, or about 476,000 students.
But despite these grim figures, institutions may also have some cause for optimism. Over the past six months, the federal government’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) has begun sending billions to colleges and universities in an effort to help the American higher ed ecosystem recover from a once-in-a-century shock. Those funds are providing much-needed support to institutions and students navigating a landscape that has been changed forever by the shift to remote learning and the economic aftereffects of a global health crisis. How can they help institutions rebound after a devastating year for college enrollment?
The Biden Administration has rightly clarified that HEERF funding cannot be contingent—that is, institutions cannot provide federal emergency aid grants that are conditional upon a student staying enrolled, or committing to enroll in the future. That’s a critical and much-needed step that will prevent bad actors from deploying emergency aid just to get more students in the door. But, ironically enough, it also runs the risk of preventing institutions from using HEERF funding to support enrollment efforts more broadly, without making the funding contingent on a student’s decision to stay enrolled.
The challenge makes sense. Faced with complex and shifting federal guidance, institutions often feel pressure to make decisions based on complying with federal guidelines rather than on helping as many students as possible. But the permissible uses of HEERF are fairly extensive, and the Department of Education’s most recent guidance is the broadest yet. That means institutions have an opportunity to use emergency aid funding to help support their enrollment, retention, and completion efforts — helping more students to and through college without running into regulatory roadblocks. Simply put, that’s free money to help students get back on track.
Here’s just one example of how federal funds can support reenrollment efforts: with students’ permission, institutions can apply HEERF emergency aid to outstanding tuition balances. That’s an easy way to help students stay enrolled, particularly since we know that small amounts of money often present outsized challenges. The third and most recent round of stimulus funding, nicknamed HEERF III, can also be used for student populations who have been left out of past stimulus action, particularly those who are not eligible for Title IV financial aid (e.g., DACA recipients).
Of course, it’s natural for an institution to wonder: is emergency aid actually effective at supporting enrollment and completion efforts?
Research shows that it is—but only when an institution’s program is optimized to help students persist and complete their degree. Last year, a first-of-its-kind study at Compton College found that grants of just $250 helped students graduate at twice the rate of those who did not receive emergency aid. The impact of that program, even amidst the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, suggests that emergency aid can be a critical part of institutions’ strategies to help more students return to school and complete their degree. Crucially, of course, that funding was not contingent on whether students remained in school. It was the right amount, at the right time, to give them the necessary boost toward completion.
In the coming months, institutions will only continue to face pressure – demographic, financial, and otherwise – in a changing world. But a growing body of evidence indicates that emergency aid can help more students navigate the path from enrollment to graduation. And just as importantly, institutions can distribute their newfound HEERF funds to support enrollment and completion efforts while remaining in compliance with federal guidance. That’s the sort of creative, student-centered approach that the future of higher education is counting on.
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