Spring slump: Higher education enrollment continues to fall

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)

 For Idaho’s colleges and universities, a pandemic enrollment hole only got worse this spring.

Taken together, the eight public colleges and universities lost more than 4,000 students from fall semester to spring semester. Across the system, enrollment fell by 7.4 percent from fall to spring, and every college and university reported a decrease of at least 5 percent.

The State Board of Education released the grim numbers last week, 14 months after the coronavirus pandemic forced Idaho’s public colleges and universities to switch to virtual learning. The state’s two- and four-year schools managed to reopen for 2020-21, offering a mix of face-to-face and online instruction, and remained open through spring semester.

Idaho’s colleges and universities managed to avoid the devastating enrollment dropoffs state and national higher education leaders feared at the start of the pandemic, a decline on the order of 20 percent. Even so, enrollment is down 8.7 percent from pre-pandemic, fall 2019 levels — and the signs for 2021-22 are troubling as well.

No matter what happens in August — when the colleges and universities hope to return to a more normal face-to-face learning environment — a one-year enrollment slump could leave Idaho higher education struggling to catch up for years. The smaller class of first-year students in 2020-21 could translate into a smaller sophomore class in 2021-22, and so on.

“We will see this ripple through the institutions … and we will see it ripple through the economy long-term,” State Board Executive Director Matt Freeman said.

A spring enrollment slump isn’t unprecedented; Idaho enrollment dropped off in 2019-20 as well. This spring’s enrollment followed several ongoing trends — driven, to an extent, by concerns about online college instruction:

  • Resident enrollment dropped by 8.7 percent, while the decrease for out-of-state students was 3.3 percent. Out-of-state enrollment was one bright spot for Idaho colleges last fall, as out-of-state students came to the Gem State for face-to-face instruction that wasn’t available in the home state. But through 2020-21, Idaho colleges have struggled to attract and retain students from within the state.
  • From fall to spring, undergraduate enrollment fell by 8.9 percent, while grad student enrollment held steady, decreasing by only 0.3 percent. That’s not unique to Idaho, and there are several possible explanations. Grad school courses translate more easily to an online setting, and since many grad students are juggling school and family commitments, they might be more willing to switch to an online model. For undergrads, the prospect of online instruction is more of a deterrent. “It’s a little bit more about the campus experience,” said Cate Collins, the State Board’s senior research analyst.
  • Idaho’s community colleges took the brunt of the spring dropoff, reporting a 10 percent enrollment decline. This is also consistent with national community college enrollment. One possible reason: Students already intimated by community college could be staying away, because they don’t want to wind up in online classes, Collins said.

And after a rough 2020-21, state education leaders are casting a cautious eye toward the next school year.

There is some cause for optimism, Freeman said. The University of Idaho and Idaho State University saw a surge in applicants in early 2020, before the pandemic hit, and Freeman is hoping they will see a repeat this spring.

But some metrics are troubling.

New applications for the state’s Opportunity Scholarship are down by about 10 percent, Collins said. Idaho’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion numbers are down by 8 percent, according to Las Vegas-based Data Insight Partners — which means thousands of high school seniors aren’t filling out the paperwork they need to receive federal loans, grants and work-study positions, and the state Opportunity Scholarship.

At the U of I, in-state applications are down “pretty substantially,” President C. Scott Green said Monday. That might translate to a stronger applicant pool, he said — in-state students who are serious about enrolling, as opposed to applicants who are on the fence. But Green isn’t sure what’s driving the dropoff in applications: coronavirus fears or questions about whether college is worth the time and money.

“We’re just trying to battle all these forces, whether it’s the pandemic, or the false narratives that are out there,” he said.

More in-depth higher education coverage

Aug. 6: A pandemic makes old problems worse for Idaho higher education

Aug. 12: Idaho campuses prepare to reopen, but will students show up?

Aug. 24: Across the state, campuses open for an uncertain new year

Sept. 24: The feds’ coronavirus aid fills some gaps, but only some

Oct. 8: Boise State faces a financial reckoning

Nov. 3: New Boise State program seeks to guide students through gap year

Nov. 12: In a pandemic, colleges struggle even more to attract Idaho graduates

Dec. 3: One semester down, a tougher semester ahead

Jan. 5: Instead of going on, Idaho high school graduates stayed home

Jan. 28: Previewing Idaho’s next higher education budget battle

Feb. 18: The day the 60 percent goal almost died

Feb. 25: The higher education Statehouse showdown starts next week

May 6: Funding higher education, on the basis of anecdotes and narrative


Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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