Support for Higher Ed Remains Strong, Despite Uncertainty for Fall Enrollments, Survey Finds

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

A group of higher education experts convened in a virtual webinar to discuss how the distribution of new polling and survey data, gathered during the onset of the novel coronavirus, has impacted colleges and universities in their attempts to sort out what their primary enrollment challenges will be for the fall semester.

The panel discussion, hosted by New America, covered a number of surveys and polls that have abounded in recent months, but began by outlining the main perceptions of higher education and its funding.

In terms of the state of higher education, New America's latest edition of Varying Degrees: New America’s Annual Survey on Higher Education, which started four years ago, found that as a whole higher education holds significant stature when it comes to the public’s views on economic mobility.

More than 90% of respondents in the 1,512 person survey said education beyond high school offers pathways for upward economic mobility. Additionally, only 17% recommend their children or family members pursue only up to a high school diploma.

The survey found that Democrats and Republicans had similar takeaways when it comes to perceptions of higher education. A significant majority of each party said people without education beyond high school face limitations in their career development (84% among Democrats and 70% among Republicans), that education beyond high school offers a good return on investment (78% among Democrats and 82% among Republicans), and that higher education provides pathways for upward economic mobility (94% among Democrats and 90% among Republicans).

Only about 1 in 3 Americans surveyed (35%) said higher education funding formulas are fine how they currently are, and a majority, 63%, believe higher education should be funded by the government because it is good for society, while 35% said it should be funded by individuals because they personally benefit.

When looking at party identification for financing higher education, a stark ideological difference emerges. For Democrats, a large majority (81%) believe the government should fund higher education, whereas 60% of Republicans said individuals should fund it because it is a personal benefit.

Though these responses were gathered at the early onset of the pandemic (conducted between February 11-24), the results offer useful takeaways that institutions should take into consideration along with the uncertainty that students, particularly incoming freshmen, have as it relates to classes in the fall.

“There are national means and there are national medians, and absolutely none of them predict what's going to happen to an individual institution,” said David Strauss, principal at Art and Science Group and a participant in the panel discussion. “They are appropriate for context, and they're appropriate for policymaking, but they're not appropriate for individual institutions figuring out what's happening to them.”

Stauss said that each institution will behave differently. Some can change their academic calendars, others can offer additional aid to get students to commit to enrollment, but for others still, no amount of funding will convince students to enroll.

“There's an immense amount of volatility,” Strauss said. “There's an immense amount of difference between the experience of one institution and another in this crisis. The common elements, young people tend to be optimistic, they want to have what they dreamed of having, or dreamed of coming back to over the course of this crisis.”

While these students tend to be optimistic, they also have expressed a lack of social connectedness imposed by social distancing and remote learning that colleges and universities have struggled to make up in a virtual setting. 

However, that flexibility offered by virtual learning has allowed other cohorts to engage.

“Due to the online environment, what we have found is that students who maybe weren't engaged previously have been able to attend student group meetings because they're now being offered virtually,” said Jill Dunlap, director for research, policy, and civic engagement at NASPA-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

While these interactions might not be as meaningful as in-person meetings, Dunlap said it was a positive takeaway to see more students having the opportunity to participate.

The panel also stressed that when it comes to data collection, the pandemic needs to be taken into consideration in order to get a holistic scope of the implications for higher education.

“There are issues that did exist before the pandemic that we can reasonably assume have just been amplified now,” said Christine Wolff-Eisenberg, manager of surveys and research at Ithaka S+R. “What efforts are worth forgoing all together? Are you conducting a survey or a poll right now that isn't about the pandemic? Maybe you should postpone those efforts — your data are going to be tainted in some way.”

As leaders at institutions of higher education continue to learn from these new data collections, they’ll need to prioritize their short-term goals with what their operations will look like when the crisis eventually begins to lift. 

“This crisis will eventually ease, if not lift, and the world we will function in when it lifts will not be any easier than it was when we were hit,” Stauss said. “It'll be more difficult still than we were thinking it was going to be going ahead, and the institutions that find themselves focused singly on dealing with the crisis are going to wake up to a harder reality.”


Publication Date: 6/25/2020

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