How Did the COVID-19 Pandemic Change Higher Education?

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During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities were among the most impacted organizations in the country. Most of them shut down their campuses and sent their students home while simultaneously changing how they were educating students.

And as we pass the three-year mark of the initial wave of school shutdowns, academic normalcy remains inaccessible for many students, educators, and parents.

“It’s more than just the pandemic to me; it’s more than just low-income communities that community colleges primarily serve,” Doug Shapiro, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s (NSCRC) executive director, told the New York Times in May 2022. 

“It suggests a broader question about the value of college, particularly concerns about student debt and paying for college and potential labor market returns. Prospective college students may be weighing the relative value of jobs that require or expect a college degree against equally attractive opportunities that do not,” Shapiro continued. 

Online Learning Surge

About 35% of US undergraduate students took a distance education course in 2018, a figure that rose to nearly 100% in 2020 due to the pandemic, according to a McKinsey & Company report. 

In April 2020, campuses moved to virtual settings, minimized summer events among admitted students, shifted financial needs, and focused on understanding what enrollment outcomes would look like for the fall term.

And although institutions were becoming more favorable of online coursework before the pandemic, faculty acceptance has increased, with more than 45% saying they formed a greater opinion of remote learning since the pandemic began. 

“Pivoting online was an excellent solution to an immediate problem during the pandemic,” Emily Campion, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at the University of Iowa, told Student Select AI in a recent interview.

“There is still absolutely a place for online learning in our higher education system because it offers increased flexibility and accessibility. But to succeed, we must ensure teachers and students are adequately prepared,” she continued.

A fall 2022 study found that about 1 in 10 postsecondary institutions offer courses primarily online. 2.8 million students (15%) attend primarily online colleges. 

Enrollment Decline

Americans may be questioning the value of higher education since the pandemic hit. 

A July 2022 Public Agenda study found increasingly pessimistic attitudes toward the value of higher education. The study shows that most Americans are concerned with affordability, access, and the overall payoff of a college degree. Among the most skeptical were young Americans without college degrees.

Specifically, two-thirds of Americans (67%) believe that although many are qualified to attend college, the opportunity to do so is limited. 

Already, higher education enrollment has declined by nearly 1.3 million students since the spring of 2020. Enrollment is sensitive to birth rates, migration patterns, and economic factors. Many people will delay attending college when the economy booms and jobs are plentiful.

In the fall of 2019, college enrollment was on a 2% decline. But the COVID-19 pandemic caused an unprecedented decrease just one year later. According to the NSCRC, undergraduate enrollment fell by 4.4% in the fall of 2020. This drop included an unprecedented 13% drop in first-year enrollment. 

During the pandemic, 15.8 million students enrolled in an undergraduate degree program. This number is the lowest fall enrollment since 2007. 

Additionally, community colleges often serve as a gateway for low-income, first-generation, nontraditional students, and students of color. But community colleges and two-year institutions experienced the most significant loss, with an 18.9% drop in first-year enrollment compared to fall 2019. 

Overall nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic changed higher education in numerous ways, but the top two include a surge in online learning and a drop in enrollment.


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