Demographic Changes and Pandemic Fallout Could Alter Higher Ed Enrollment Trends

Related Topics in the Ref Desk: Cost of Attendance; Need Analysis; Pell Grant;

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

The past academic year has been a shock to the higher education system and the ongoing challenges caused by the pandemic have made a looming demographic crisis more tangible.

At a time when schools are coping with declines in first year enrollments due to uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, long-term concerns stemming from the so-called "enrollment cliff" — in which changing demographics and a decline in the U.S. birth rate will lead to a smaller pool of college-aged students that is projected to reach its peak sometime between 2025 and 2026 — are also coming to a head on campuses across the country.

But for some, the characterization of this demographic change as a “cliff” is somewhat misleading.

“Cliff is a weird metaphor because cliff makes it seem like you're on a plateau, and then you're dropping off into the ocean,” said Jill Barshay writer and editor, The Hechinger Report. “I see the demographic trend not quite as a cliff — it began in 2008 with a decline in the birth rate.”

While institutions of higher education were aware of the demographic challenges prior to the pandemic, the sudden decline in enrollment due to the coronavirus made the long-term challenge immediately tangible.

“Certainly [schools] were aware of the demographics, but I think it felt a little bit too much in the future for a lot of colleges,” said Brett Schraeder, an EAB principal for financial aid optimization. “Enrollment declines this fall definitely served as a wake-up call, and really got institutions to think about what's most important about the education they provide.”

This gradual decline in the U.S. birth rate started during the financial crisis of 2008, when the economic uncertainty led to people having fewer babies. The number of children born between 2008 and 2011 fell quite dramatically — a trend that continues to be the case.

Yet some institutions around the country have been feeling this population decline since before 2008 because fertility rates — the total number of children that would be born to each woman in a given year if she were to live to the end of her child-bearing years and give birth to children in alignment with the prevailing age-specific fertility rates — decreased sooner in certain parts of the country.

For example, in New England the fertility rate declines well predated the 2008 financial crisis. The issue was further exacerbated by residents not staying in that area, instead migrating to other states.

Institutions — particularly regional ones that don’t tend to draw from a national or international applicant pool — in states such asNew Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts “have been seeing a smaller pool of students for a long, long time,” Barshay said.

Around the same time, states like Arizona, Florida, and Nevada were still seeing a population boom, before the financial crisis led to declining fertility rates across the country.

Unlike this gradual trend, the pandemic's sudden and unilateral arrival in March 2020 shuttered the higher education sector across state lines, which according to Schraeder, has shown how enmeshed institutions are in local economies.

“Colleges and universities have created these mini-economic ecosystems that weren't just about education, but they were about student living and students buying food and buying books and keeping towns afloat,” Schraeder said.

The financial vulnerability of these mini-economic systems that rely on student enrollment and tuition is now incredibly clear.

“When you have a pandemic or a coming demographic cliff, it really puts a shock in the system,” Schraeder said.

Now a year into some form of remote learning, schools are looking to rework how they operate. And while some could look to pivot to more online instruction, investing in that infrastructure comes at a heavy entry cost because institutions that dominate the online education sector — like Southern New Hampshire University — already have name recognition with students looking for those types of programs, making a pivot to that sort of online infrastructure a “tough sell” according to Schraeder.

While institutions could be looking into developing hybrid learning programs, a lot of this planning is contingent on what enrollment trends look like in a world where the pandemic begins to wane.

“It's still probably a little early to tell what the enrollment outcomes are going to be for this fall, particularly because we've sort of noticed some sluggishness in students depositing and committing to institutions,” Schraeder said.

The pandemic has delayed the enrollment process for the upcoming academic year, with students staving off campus visits and waiting to see what a potential in-person fall semester could look like.

Additionally, some typical benchmarks — like Pell Grant tables — have been delayed.

“We know that the Pell tables got released very late this year so that set back financial aid packages from a lot of schools,” Schraeder said. “Some schools will send out financial aid packages before the Pell tables get released, but some schools will wait until that happens — and that happened in February this year.”

Christina Tangalakis, associate dean of financial aid at Glendale College, said these delays have differing impacts on higher education depending on the institution.

“As a community college, we have a later awarding cycle than four-year institutions. We haven’t started awarding yet for 2021-22,” Tangalakis said. “I suspect you might get different insights about delays from the four-years because their cycle starts well before us, to meet recruitment goals and the May 1 deadline.”

In a newly published EAB survey on FAFSA filing data, Schraeder and his colleagues found that the pandemic has exacerbated many of the challenges first-generation and low-income students face in filing their FAFSA and applying to college. What this means for enrollment trends this fall is somewhat concerning.

That information, coupled with a National Student Clearinghouse report findings that documented how the pandemic has widened the gap of college-going rates among graduates of high-poverty and low-poverty high schools — which prior to the pandemic had kept pace with each other and now see declines of 11.4% and 2.9% respectively — has left institutions questioning how to best address varying student needs.

For Tangalakis, that means digging deeper, finding out which students are leaving higher education, and addressing their needs to get re-enrolled.

“I only have visibility on a day-to-day basis on what's going on financial aid, which is kind of an indicator, but it's not source material on what's happening, but you know it's a pretty good indicator like if your car’s wet it might be raining outside,” Tangalakis said.

Those indicators, from Tangalakis’ stance, create a cause for concern. While typical enrollment at her school is around 15,000 students, she said both FAFSA applications and Pell Grant-eligible applicants have declined compared to last year.

“That's pretty alarming,” Tangalakis said.

These near-term enrollment trends, coupled with long-term demographic changes, are forcing institutions to grapple with how to best get students who dropped out with the pandemic re-enrolled. Once institutions establish who has left, they can then begin to use their aid offices and the larger campus community to conduct one-on-one outreach to students and get to the heart of what is causing a hesitancy to re-enroll. 

“But that only goes so far… We have to have the services on campus when they come back,” Tangalakis said. “I don't think our campus is ever going to look the same as it did a year, 13, or 14 months ago. I think we're going to have to really address basic needs more sufficiently, even though we have a really laudable and energetic basic needs program.”

As the U.S. enters what appears to be the beginnings of a pandemic recovery, it is still unclear whether prospective higher education students will continue to delay their enrollment plans.

“We know that when students don't go to college directly out of high school, many tend to fall off — they never enroll at all,” Schraeder said.

As institutions look forward and implement aid administered through various pandemic relief packages — the latest being the American Rescue Plan Act — there are a number of policy considerations to help bolster enrollment.

The biggest near-term hurdle to reversing enrollment trends is somewhat unrelated to policy. It’s simply the pandemic coming to an end. But that timeline is very much up in the air as vaccinations are administered and studies into emerging virus variants shed light on the safety of in-person learning.

Going forward, a number of federal policies could help to bolster enrollment and push back against the upcoming enrollment decline.

As President Joe Biden’s free community college proposal takes shape, a number of higher education advocates are also looking toward implementation of FAFSA simplification and increasing the maximum Pell Grant award.

NASFAA has recently called on congressional leaders to use this session to double the maximum Pell Grant award to $13,000.

“I think that very much could have an impact on enrollment,” Schraeder said of doubling the Pell Grant and the potential impact of FAFSA changes coupled with some sort of free college proposal.

“If we're providing a lot more support for both low-income and even middle-income families for college, then that absolutely could make a nice impact in terms of students enrolling,” he said.


Publication Date: 4/19/2021

You must be logged in to comment on this page.

Comments Disclaimer: NASFAA welcomes and encourages readers to comment and engage in respectful conversation about the content posted here. We value thoughtful, polite, and concise comments that reflect a variety of views. Comments are not moderated by NASFAA but are reviewed periodically by staff. Users should not expect real-time responses from NASFAA. To learn more, please view NASFAA’s complete Comments Policy.

Related Content

Fundamentals of Student Financial Aid - July 2025


Fundamentals of Student Financial Aid - January 2025


View Desktop Version