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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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
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 percent increase from the previous year, and it admitted 86 percent 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 percent 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 percent 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 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.