Colette Han, a high school senior from the Los Angeles area, originally thought of attending Wesleyan College, a small liberal arts school in Georgia. That institution had awarded her a substantial merit scholarship that added appeal.
But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
Besides shaking innumerable lives and industries, the health crisis also has altered or at least confused college futures for many of the estimated 300,000 California high school seniors like Han who were expected to begin higher education in the fall. In turn, that has created immense uncertainty for colleges about fall enrollments.
Some students are doing the unthinkable — turning down their first-choice schools.
Han dropped the Georgia school because she was unable to tour it during the lockdown and feared getting stranded across the country if another outbreak occurs. Accepted at several other schools, she has decided to attend UC Irvine as a business information management major and hopes to live on campus, which is about 45 miles from her Monterey Park home.
“It was a difficult decision, but safety always comes first,” said the senior at Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra. “If I am alone in a college out-of-state, it would be really hard to come back home. And if I got sick in another state, it would be really hard for my family to take care of me.”
Decisions like hers are adding to what California college officials say is unprecedented uncertainty about how many new freshmen will turn up in the fall and how many current students will return. Some of that depends on whether regular face-to-face classes will resume, a big unknown as the May 1 deadline approaches at many schools for students to send commitment deposits.
For every Californian who elects to stay home, officials worry there are many others from other states and countries who also elect not to leave home or are unable to obtain visas to come to the United States. Family unemployment may drive students from private colleges and the University of California to less expensive options, like community colleges and the California State University, or to skip school for a year altogether.
“The enrollment question is probably the biggest question for the fall. And it’s probably the thing that gives me the most anxiety,” Lande Ajose, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior policy advisor for higher education, told EdSource. This time of year, campuses usually start planning for fall classes and dorm space. Now many colleges, public and private, “are not able to count on the assumptions they usually use,” she said.
In case things don’t improve, some colleges are modeling scenarios with 10% to 20% enrollment drops, even after dipping deeply into their waiting list of applicants. At the same time, more students will be seeking boosts in financial aid. Those nightmarish projections suggest significant declines in tuition and other revenues, leading to layoffs and cuts in programs and services for the 2.3 million students at California’s public colleges and universities and the 470,000 or so at its private campuses.
“Of course, kids are scared and don’t know what to expect,” said Yesenia Aguilar, director of the College Bound counseling program at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor, which is helping students obtain additional scholarship grants. The overall goal is to calm them down, keep them on track to their “dream schools” if possible, and to ensure they do not abandon higher education in a panicky moment. “Most kids are resilient and they are not giving up,” Aguilar said.
Besides many colleges giving students an extra month, to June 1, to send in enrollment deposits, some are offering enrollment deferrals until the spring. Officials always worry about so-called summer melt — students who put down deposits yet don’t attend in the fall — but are very concerned that those numbers could be much higher this year.
Colleges were rattled by a recent national survey by the marketing and research firm SimpsonScarborough that showed that 8% of high school seniors who had planned to attend a four-year college are now unlikely to do so and that 14% are considering not going to their first-choice school because of the pandemic.
UCLA’s vice provost for enrollment management, Youlanda Copeland-Morgan, said that deposits from California students actually are somewhat higher than normal this year, but that some international students — who this year comprised 11% of UCLA’s 31,500 undergraduates — are not likely to return to UCLA or UC’s other eight undergraduate campuses because of visa problems related to the crisis.
UCLA is likely to dip more deeply into its admissions waiting list and offer spots to more Californians and students from elsewhere in the United States, she said. “This is a very difficult and unprecedented year in terms of our ability to predict what’s going to happen,” she said. UCLA admitted only about 13% of its 109,000 freshmen applicants so far this year, she said. Traditionally, a very high percentage of those admitted wind up attending — 43% last year.
UCLA is seeing a significant increase in appeals from future freshmen who say they need more financial aid than they did a few months ago. The university will use private donations, the portion of federal stimulus funds earmarked for students and campus money to offer additional aid where possible, Copeland-Morgan said. “Our focus is on eliminating the barriers for students and families,” she said.
Similar uncertainty may last into next spring throughout the 23-campus CSU system, according to Edward Sullivan, assistant vice chancellor for institutional research and analyses. With so much in flux, Sullivan said he did not know whether CSU will enroll close to the 66,000 freshmen it had this school year. The proximity of CSU campuses to their homes may appeal to California freshmen even as international students are lost.
Some CSU campuses will seek to supplement fall enrollment with a large group of new freshmen and transfer students in the spring, when the health situation is likely to be more settled, Sullivan said. Some students already enrolled at CSU may skip the fall semester if fully online classes continue and then return in the spring, he added. Others have become so comfortable with distance learning that they will not want to interrupt their education, no matter what happens, he said.
“What we have learned through this is that we have to be flexible and we have to recognize that things are different than they have been historically,” Sullivan said. For example, CSU and UC are allowing students to submit pass/fail grades in their required high school courses, something impossible last year.
Concerns about family resources and safety may be the most important factors, particularly for students very dependent on financial aid.
Jasmine Ramirez is an example of a student who probably will bolster the CSU enrollment at the expense of UC. A senior at Long Beach Polytechnic High School, she was attracted to UC Merced, but a campus tour was canceled and she felt she could not “commit to a place where I haven’t felt it out in person.” And she was worried about being 300 miles away from home if another virus outbreak occurs.
“It would be difficult for me, not just financially, but also emotionally. I would feel I have to be with my family,” said Ramirez, who is active in the Californians for Justice organization and wants to major in sociology. So now she is choosing between CSU campuses in Long Beach and Dominguez Hills, both within easy commuting range.
Jacqueline Islas, a senior at the Port of Los Angeles High School in San Pedro, was set on Sacramento State, which she figured would be perfect for state government internships in her criminal justice major. Then her mother, a housekeeper who is the family’s main source of income, lost a lot of work in the emergency and finances suddenly tightened. Even with college grants promised, Islas became anxious about being far from home during a health crisis and less able to help her mother.
So now, with the counseling help of the College Bound program at the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor, she is choosing between CSU campuses closer to home, in Northridge and Dominguez Hills, where her older brother attends. “I’m a little disappointed because there was so much potential for me to grow in Sacramento,” she said. “I know it’s nobody’s fault, but now I have to go to a different route, to someplace more local and more affordable.” But no matter what, she said she will maintain her plan to start at a four-year university.
Chico State, a Northern California university that mainly enrolls students from other areas, is working hard to keep admitted students on track to enroll, according to admissions director Kim Guanzon. With its “Choose Chico” on-campus events canceled earlier this month, the school is holding virtual meetings, sending emails and making phone calls, trying to reach its goal of enrolling 2,700 freshmen in the fall.
The campus admitted more applicants than usual because “we wanted to hedge our bets a little bit,” Guanzon said. Chico State extended its deposit deadline by a month until June 1 and is reviewing financial aid appeals.
Calling this “an unprecedented time,” Guanzon said the campus is “doing the best we can to serve students and help them work through their decision-making process.” She said the school wants to keep the door open to students who may stay close to home for the fall and then realize they want to try Chico again later.
Education experts predict that California’s community colleges are likely to see an enrollment rise from two sources: students who decide not to start at more expensive four-year schools and people who have lost jobs and want retraining.
“When there is a downturn and people are out of work, what they do is come to the community college because the costs are low and the value high and we’re particularly aimed at where the jobs are,” said Bill Scroggins, president of Mount San Antonio College, in Walnut, 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.
With increased unemployment among retail and hotel workers and others, he said he expects more demand for vocational instruction in home healthcare, biotechnology, cybersecurity and other fields that will need graduates during the pandemic.
If the crisis continues into the fall, community colleges’ challenge will be to meet that demand while maintaining social distancing orders and offering remote learning options, he said, “It’ll be even more important in an environment where family income has taken a hit,” he added.
EdSource reporter Ashley A. Smith contributed to this article.
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