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Private Colleges Optimistic About Enrollment Despite VirusLock Icon

5 min read

It might seem counterintuitive in the age of coronavirus, but Arkansas’ private colleges are cautiously optimistic about enrollment in the fall.

Andy Goodman, president and CEO of the Arkansas Independent Colleges & Universities association, thinks he knows why. After having the spring semester transformed by an unprecedented health threat, students — particularly the high school class of 2020 — “are ready to be around young people again,” he said. “Student life and networking cannot be replaced by online learning.”

When in-person instruction was halted in March, Arkansas’ private colleges, like their public counterparts, scrambled to finish the spring semester online. Another thing also went virtual, Goodman said: the recruiting of new students.

Colleges and universities of all types and sizes were already under pressure from a demographic trend line that is often described as a cliff, although its slope varies by geographic region. An industry that for nearly a century could count on enrollment inching upward with population growth can now expect the supply of traditional students, those fresh out of high school, to be flat before falling.

For private colleges, the shortage of available students is compounded by the price tag; privates are generally a little or a lot more expensive than public schools at a time when the cost of higher education has become prohibitive for many potential customers.

Harding University in Searcy, Goodman’s alma mater and the largest member of the AICU, acknowledged both COVID-19 and those “longer term enrollment trends in higher education” earlier this month when it laid off 10 faculty and staff members, left eight positions vacant and reduced seven other positions to part time.

Still, Harding’s president, Bruce McLarty, said last week that fall enrollment indicators were encouraging.

“At this point, we have not seen a decline in our numbers for incoming freshmen and returning students,” he said in emailed answers to submitted questions. “However, for budget purposes, we have anticipated our own ‘COVID effect’ by adjusting down our expectation of new and returning students. I hope that is simply being overly cautious. No one will know what enrollment will actually look like until the students show up this fall. At Harding, we are cautiously optimistic and are significantly more hopeful than we were just six weeks ago.”

Harding had 4,793 students in the fall 2019 semester after peaking just above 7,000 in 2011.

Lyon College in Batesville is much smaller — 661 students last fall — but Perry Wilson, chair of its board of trustees, also struck an upbeat tone in a letter to the “Lyon College Community” on May 8:

“I am very pleased to report that I learned recently that our post-May 1st enrollment numbers for fall of 2020 look very good,” Wilson wrote. “As of the report, we had 811 prospective student visits to campus (which is 238 more than this time last year), and we had 204 new student deposits (which is 41 more than this time last year).”

Hendrix College in Conway exended its deposit deadline for new students to June 1. Last week Communications Director Amy Forbus said more than 90% of returning students had re-registered for the fall semester and deposits for new students were ahead of last year.

Safety First

After a spring spent on amped-up virtual recruiting efforts, AICU members, like most other colleges and universities, have announced their intentions to resume on-campus, in-person instruction in the fall semester, Goodman said. Hendrix, for instance, posted this message on its website last week:

“As of mid-May, Hendrix plans to begin fall semester classes on Tuesday, August 25. Current students have already registered for classes and campus housing for the fall, and we continue to receive deposits from new students and applications for admission from prospective students.”

And while all colleges face the same challenge — minimizing coronavirus infections — private schools “have a high population of students who live on campus,” Goodman noted. This traditional college experience may be especially attractive to members of the class of 2020, the first class born after 9/11 who “lost their senior year of high school, and it’s probably not good to spend another six months on their parents’ couch.”

It may also be safer, he said. Students can be positioned as “family units” in dorm rooms. And in the event of infection, contact tracing could be easier in the insular world of a college campus, said Goodman, a member of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s Economic Recovery Task Force.

The AICU has joined public colleges and universities in asking Hutchinson to establish regional COVID testing centers equipped to provide rapid results. “If there’s an outbreak in Conway or Searcy or northwest Arkansas, you need capacity not just for students but for your community,” Goodman said.

Minimizing the risk of infection and transmission looks different from school to school, Goodman said. The New York Times noted last week that several universities around the country — including the University of South Carolina, Notre Dame, Rice and Creighton — are planning to shorten the fall semester so that students are home by Thanksgiving, reducing the chance that a virus picked up during the fall break will be brought back to campus to spread before Christmas.

AICU member schools are all making contingency plans in case campuses must again be abandoned in favor of online classes, Goodman said. In the meantime, one thing that all campuses must do is create “social distance,” Goodman said, a concept that has become ubiquitous in 2020.

Harding President McLarty said college administrators are using a different buzzword.

“There is a new expression going around higher education these days: de-densifying,” McLarty said. “It is a very useful way of describing what we will need to do this fall. We can’t really reconfigure our existing physical space, but we can change the way we schedule classes, meet for chapel [Harding’s mandatory daily devotional assembly], walk through buildings and avoid the crowds that have been so much a part of the college experience.

“Each of these things will help to put more space around all of us and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. You can already see hand sanitizer stations all over campus, and we have already begun the difficult process of imagining the de-densification of the Harding University campus.”

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