Higher ed faces enrollment challenges, major financial losses during pandemic

As public universities face losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars due to COVID-19, they also are seeing declining enrollment figures for the fall, particularly among international and out-of-state students. 

They are rushing to mitigate the damage — expanding online and global programs, cutting student fees, reaching out directly to students — anything to spur enrollment.  

With little or no funding coming from the state, international and out-of-state students are the bread and butter for state universities, including supplementing the costs of in-state students, said Larry Penley, chair of the Arizona Board of Regents that oversees public universities. 

“We have to think of our universities in the same way we think of Raytheon or Intel,”  Penley said. “Both of those companies manufacture goods that bring revenue from outside of our state and outside of our country into the Arizona economy. Universities do exactly the same thing and much more so today than they did in the past.

“Essentially, we are an export industry now, a base industry, bringing revenue that was not generated here in the state but perhaps from India, perhaps from China, perhaps from California or Illinois or New York.” 

International students alone pump $727.6 million annually into Arizona’s economy, according to the latest statistics from NAFSA, the world’s largest nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. Almost 23,000 international students attended Arizona universities in 2018, supporting 8,745 jobs. 

The loss of that revenue, hurts not only universities but surrounding communities, Penley said. In Flagstaff and Tucson, they are the largest employers. 

To illustrate the impact, the University of Arizona (UArizona) in Tucson is projecting fall enrollment of new international students to be down 80 percent and currently enrolled international students, 30 percent. 

International students’ brain power important to economy

Not only do out-of-state and international students bolster the state’s economy, they bring valuable intellectual property to the state, said former Arizona U.S. Congressman Matt Salmon, who served five terms. As a member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, he led numerous delegations to China. 

“Foreign science in the United States has long been something that has benefited this county and we should be attracting the brightest and best from wherever they live on the planet and getting them here to work for American companies,” said Salmon, who is now vice president of government affairs for Arizona State University’s (ASU) Office of Government & Community Engagement Team.

“Some of the best researchers at the university come from other countries, and what will happen if we lose that?”

Brightest students from China and India come to Arizona schools  

Arizona overall ranks 12th in the country for international students, according to Open Doors, a comprehensive information resource on international students and scholars in the U.S. 

Chinese students make up the biggest percentage of international students, followed by students from India. They often represent their country’s brightest minds, Salmon said. 

Some end up staying. Among their ranks: top surgeons, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs.  

Travel restrictions, closed embassies block student entry to U.S. 

Right now, major roadblocks are discouraging enrollment for these highly sought after students. Travel restrictions are in place due to COVID-19. Embassies that issue travel visas from countries like China, where the outbreak started, are shut down 

Out-of-state student enrollment is also down, largely due to fear and uncertainty right now.

UArizona President Robert Robbins called the situation “a category 5 hurricane right in the middle of the campus.” 

Rushing to expand online, global programs is number one goal 

Robbins and other public university and college presidents have worked feverishly in the past month to transition to marketing, expanding online offerings and other measures to attract international and out-of-state students and hold on to current students for the fall. 

While most schools are planning to open campuses back up in the fall. Things will not be the same. 

Hybrid models, where about half the course are online, will be in place. Every campus is embarking on exhaustive safety precautions, including costly investments in personal protective equipment (PPE) and “the three ‘ts,’” testing, tracing and treating, Robbins said.

Infected students will be housed in an infirmary. Their illness will be traced to everyone they had contact with. Anyone exposed will be quarantined in separate quarters.  

All colleges and universities, public and private, are expanding online and virtual education to ensure social distancing can take place on campuses. 

ASU and UArizona accelerated the launch of two programs to do just that:

Online summer school launched at ASU 

ASU announced that beginning May 18, it will be offering more than 5,000 online courses at a reduced rate to people looking for new learning opportunities and for students at all levels including those currently enrolled in good standing at any university in the U.S. 

Application fees for college students enrolled at other universities will be waived, and scholarships are available for most admitted and currently enrolled ASU students.

UArizona launches world’s largest network of global campuses

Officials at the University of Arizona recently accelerated the expansion of its Global Campus after international travel restrictions and visa moratoriums were put in place.

Partnering with top universities to provide an education to international students, UArizona has created the world’s largest network of global campuses, offering access to a U.S. degree from more than 130 locations in 34 countries.

Now, students around the world who want to study and earn a degree from the University of Arizona may do so remotely, but still have an in-person community experience at partner campuses. Students can also live and study in purpose-built residential communities through a partnership with GSA, a global leader in student accommodations. 

The vision of the Global Campus is a way to reach millions of students where they are. So, while travel between world countries is restricted due to COVID-19, students do not need to suspend their ambitions to learn from a top research university like Arizona, university officials said. 

“The Global Campus is a long-term effort towards meeting the United Nations’ sustainable development goal of providing accessible quality education to the world,” President Robbins said. “We are truly making affordable, world-class education available to global citizens around the world and, in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been needed more.”

Grand Canyon University’s expects higher enrollment in the fall  

Not all universities are seeing major impacts on enrollment. The private Grand Canyon University has about 85,000 online students and 22,000 ground campus students. Sixty percent of on-campus students are from out of state but their numbers are not declining, likely because in-state and out-of-state tuition are the same, making it more affordable than what they might pay in their own state, university officials said. 

Enrollment is on target to grow 5-6 percent this year, said GCU President Brian Mueller.

“We expect 8,000 new students coming on campus in the fall, which will be our largest incoming class ever,” President Mueller said. 

GCU has also invested $250 million over the past decade on technologies to teach students online so transitioning to a remote model was fairly seamless, he said. 

Maricopa Community College District seeing drop in enrollment

While community colleges do not cater to international and out-of-state students, they are still being affected, said Steven R. Gonzales, interim president for the Maricopa Community College District.

The district, which has colleges Valleywide and the Maricopa Corporate College, serving more than 200,000 students with two-year degrees, is seeing a 20 percent drop in fall enrollment. 

The district has not yet determined whether it will be safe to reopen its campuses in the fall, Gonzales said.

“Understandably, students are anxious for additional information about how classes will resume in the fall, and we’re working to prepare for every possible scenario. If it is possible to return to the classroom, we are still committed to the safety of our community,” said Matt Hasson, chief communications officer. 

The district is offering a variety of learning solutions to keep students intact, including offering classes in summer and fall: fully online and online live with synchronous virtual classes, as well as on-campus hybrid and face-to-face classes.

“Many college students, whether they’re at a university or community college, are wrestling with the idea of returning to college in the fall with reports of COVID-19 potentially coming back, as well as the financial impact the virus has had,” Gonzales said. “ We also know that many in our community are experiencing hardships because they’ve lost their job or a family member has lost theirs.

“These concerns are very real and are at the heart of every discussion I am having with my college presidents and leadership teams on a daily basis. The bottom line is that we are here for our community. We’ve designed every possible delivery method for anyone interested in taking a course, upskilling with a new certificate, and we’re redesigning how we deliver our programs to expedite returning Arizonans to the workforce. We are committed to finding every possible solution to serve this community in whatever way meets their needs.”

Victoria Harker

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