Realignment of student priorities: Another legacy of COVID
The X-ray taken of higher education during and after the pandemic likewise revealed several of the broken places in higher education in the United States.
This article will focus on two of the forever revelations about American higher education, post-pandemic: first, that there are fewer ‘traditional’ US students enrolling in ‘traditional’ US colleges and universities and, second, that there are fewer international students enrolling in undergraduate degree programmes in the US.
Drop in enrolments
According to data published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, since the start of the pandemic, there are 1.3 million fewer students enrolled in colleges and universities in the US. Enrolment across all sectors dropped from just over 17 million students in the spring of 2020 to just under 16 million in the spring of 2022 and the decline in community college enrolment was 20%.
According to a report by the ECMC Group, the proportion of 14- to 18-year-olds who consider education necessary beyond high school has dropped from 60% to 45%. And more than half of the high school students surveyed revealed they are open to something other than a four-year degree.
A Strada survey found that fewer than four in 10 people with an associate degree or less believe that further education will help them with future employment.
Jason Wingard, author of The College Devaluation Crisis: Market disruption, diminishing ROI and an alternative future of learning, interviewed several employers about why they were hiring students straight from high school and was told that “the college degree had ceased to be a guarantee that employers were going to get the employees they want”.
COVID-19 has pulled back the curtain, revealing that some of the ‘guarantees’ of a college degree are questionable.
COVID-19 also pulled back the curtain on the inability of future students to reconcile the cost, debt and time it takes to obtain an undergraduate degree with their future educational and lifestyle goals.
Alternative credentials, including apprenticeships, digital badges and short-term courses now allow Americans to enrol in cheaper and shorter programmes that may better prepare them to meet the needs of a new and different American economy. Employers like Amazon, Google and IBM have adopted skills-based hiring practices. And 100 million projected job openings over the next decade across nearly 300 occupations will not require a four-year undergraduate degree.
Perhaps the greatest reason for the decline in the number of ‘traditional’ students enrolling in ‘traditional’ colleges and universities is what a recent Gallup poll found. Higher education has a trust problem. According to a survey by the Federal Reserve, only four in 10 bachelor degree holders under 45 believe that the benefits of an undergraduate degree are worth the cost.
Fewer international students
Despite the encouraging number of applications from international students for the 2022-23 academic year, and despite the fact that the US remains the number one destination for international students, I believe that the US will continue to lose market share of international students in the future.
Consider the following: in 2017, I published a book, International Student Mobility and the New World Disorder. The premise was simple. International student mobility and enrolment will be defined in the future by political, economic, societal and technological trends. Today I would add the impact of COVID-19 and the potential of future pandemics to this list of disruptors.
Students from China make up 72% of the international student population in the US. During the pandemic there was a 14.8% decline in the number of Chinese students enrolled in the US.
There are many factors contributing to this decline, but we cannot underestimate the impact of the geopolitical tensions and rivalry between the US and China, exacerbated by the pandemic.
The future enrolment of Chinese students in the US is not encouraging. The number of US student visas issued to Chinese nationals plunged by more than 50% in the first half of 2022 compared with pre-COVID-19 levels.
According to data from the US State Department, 31,055 F-1 visas were issued in the first six months of 2022, compared with 64,261 for the same period in 2019. It is unlikely that Chinese students will return to study in the US in the numbers they have for the past 20 years.
The economies of many countries have made it more difficult for international students to afford enrolling in a country with the most expensive tuition costs.
Growth in international branch campuses and the ability of international students to study virtually at many institutions of higher learning will also contribute to the decline in the number of international students studying in America, post-pandemic.
Higher education alternatives
Many Asian governments have initiated robust international recruitment initiatives and have launched higher education programmes that are both less expensive and more flexible than many programmes offered in the US.
During and since the pandemic, many Latin American universities have increased their international partnership agreements and improved their capacity to deliver online courses.
Safety is a chief concern of all parents, but especially the parents of future international students. Daily reports of violence and shootings in the US resonate with international families.
Perhaps that is why, according to a survey released by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, nearly 80% of the students polled chose Canada as their study destination because of the safety and stability in that country.
The pandemic forced countries and higher education institutions worldwide to improve the quality of the educational experience they offer students as well as to forge educational alliances that promote flexibility and credential mobility. The roadmap initiated by ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries and the 20 European Universities alliances are two examples of increased collaboration.
The statistics, surveys and trends listed in this article reflect a higher education landscape that has changed for US colleges and universities, post-pandemic. They reflect a re-alignment of priorities of both domestic and international students.
US college and university presidents and US international deans and recruiters should realise that fewer ‘traditional’ US American students and fewer international students enrolling are two of COVID-19’s forever legacies. I think this FedEx ad says it best: “Where now meets next.”
Marguerite Dennis is an internationally recognised expert in international student recruitment, enrolment and retention. She has more than 25 years of experience consulting with colleges and universities in the United States and around the world. This is the second of three articles on the long-term higher education changes associated with COVID-19. The first article is on student behaviour.