US enrollment numbers and the state of purpose-built student accommodation amid COVID-19

Enrollment numbers overview

The coronavirus has brought uncertainty to the entire world, and as US colleges report more data – the enrollment picture worsens. 

A month into the fall semester, The National Student Clearing House (NSCH) released its second update of the student fall enrollment statistics, which identifies a further path of decline compared to its first set of numbers in September. Based on 9.2 million students, which is nearly 54% of postsecondary institutions, the repobuildvcvrt shows that undergraduate enrollment has dropped 4% compared to last year, and is balanced by an increase of graduate enrollment with 2.7%. Additionally, international undergraduate numbers also recorded a double-digit drop reaching -13.7%.

But although the outlook for universities, as well as on-campus and off-campus student housing operators, is unfavorable now, there is no need for panic yet, because numbers have been on a slow and steady decline for a decade. NSCH’s Executive Director Douglas Shapiro thinks universities are in “fairly good shape” as enrollments at most four-year schools are better than the national average. However, the uncertainty of the situation and the incomplete data requires patience if we are to see how current national numbers deviate from 2019. 

Similarly, the student housing market is showing resilience due to Covid-19, even though the number of transactions has declined this year and has seen $1.58 billion in investment activity through 2020, a significant drop compared to the $2.29 billion transacted for the same period in 2019. The zeitgeist has shifted from new acquisitions to companies focusing on internal operations, logistics and creating initiatives to safely, and efficiently house residents throughout purpose-built accommodations across the country.

Meanwhile, the plans of universities have remained fluid and concentrated on strategies for returning guests and deciding on the proper number of students to house on-campus. A widely adopted strategy appears to be the lowering of on-campus capacity for the fall of 2020, which in turn has led off-campus housing demand exceeding the supply that is available in many submarkets.

Three things to note

The data from the Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information update, however, reveals three things that make experts wag their fingers and raise eyebrows in concern.  

Community College numbers suffer 

The pandemic has tightened the budgets of everyone and students make no exception. What is disturbing is that numbers indicate that among the hardest hit are two-year colleges in the country where undergraduate enrollment has fallen by 9.4% compared to fall 2019. This will affect four-year undergraduate programs as well because community colleges are the front door for many to higher education. Also, if the trend continues, there will be fewer students going to college, less money, program cuts and less financial support programs in times when they are most needed.  

The problem comes from the vulnerability of the student base. On one side, most students going to community college are less affluent, and investing in college might not be best now. Moreover, they perform service-related jobs and are among those hit hardest by Covid-19. Then, as education moves online to guarantee the safety of everyone, research shows that those students are the least likely to be able to handle online learning. 

First-year enrollments hit hardest 

The most substantial declines have been recorded in first-time beginning students at community colleges which dropped to 22.7%, contrary to a 1.4% growth in 2019. Also, NSCH reports that freshman enrollment at public undergraduate schools has sunk 16.1% since last year. 

The uncertainty created by the pandemic has forced many future freshmen to wait out and see what happens; they don’t lose anything. At this point, experts can only speculate about the real reasons as things are very dynamic and there isn’t enough data. However, as an explanation appears the fact that students are not entirely fans of online learning. Almost half of the respondents to a new survey by the Center for Consumer Insights said that online teaching has worsened their ability to learn. 

For-profit college enrollments outdo everyone 

For-profit college first-time enrollments increased by 3.7% amid the pandemic, making the institutions the only ones to record positive numbers. 

The results most likely come as an aftermath of universities switching to online teaching. This has led to a spike in demand for online learning alternatives. According to NSCH, online institutions, where most students enroll even before the pandemic, “enrollments are growing at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.” What’s more, experts highlight that “for-profit” in reality is another name for “online” colleges. With all these in mind, it appears that the increase in demand for online colleges is a reflection of adjusting to the current environment rather than an endorsement of for-profit schools. 

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