Students reluctant to commit to college as virus strains finances; fall enrollment drops

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The coronavirus pandemic has upended college life. Some incoming college freshmen are opting to study closer to home in the fall. Others are putting off college altogether. 

Many of their families, too, are forced to face unexpected financial hardships. 

However, a lot of students don’t realize they can appeal their financial aid packages. 

Universities are doing everything they can to fill their freshman classes — and that gives high school seniors negotiating power.

“I tell families that if they got a better financial aid award from a competitor, from a competing college, they should include that with their materials,” said Sara Harberson, founder of Application Nation and former associate dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. “They should actually include a copy of the other financial aid award to show that institution that they’re hoping to attend, ‘Look how much this other college gave me.’ ”

Even some of the more selective colleges that don’t normally award aid are now giving financial assistance or even waiving enrollment deposits. 

However, some families and students are still hesitant to commit, in part, because they’re not sure what’s going to happen with room and board tuition in the fall. Some parents still don’t know what their job situation will look like by then — let alone if they can still take on the initial costs that they originally thought they could afford.

Colleges haven’t said for certain what the upcoming year will look like. Enrollment is down, and remote learning could drive more students away. 

Harberson predicts a majority of universities will not let students return to campus in the fall, leaving parents wondering if online learning really has the same value as in-person instruction.

“A number of major colleges and universities are already using their waitlist,” she noted. “This is highly unusual. Most colleges won’t use their waitlist until after May 1. They have to see how many enrollment deposits come in.”

Some schools have even decided to send acceptance letters to students who were previously rejected.

Smaller colleges — that do not receive large endowments — may be forced close, and schools that rely heavily on an influx of international students will also feel the financial pinch.

“Even the more highly ranked, highly respected colleges” — the University of Chicago, Washington University, Georgia Tech, for example — “are struggling to meet their enrollment goals this year, so you can only imagine how some of those smaller colleges or colleges with smaller endowments are going to be struggling,” Harberson said.

Some schools, including Temple University, have announced plans to freeze tuition for the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. 

While colleges continue to scramble for recruits, young students are left with a difficult decision.

“If there are students that are looking for more financial aid or more merit money, this is the time when the colleges are going to try to make some better packages because they’re being forced to,” Harberson emphasized.