Kristen Boesel
Kristen is a Senior Lifestyles & Leisure Analyst at Mintel. She conducts consumer research and analysis for US Lifestyles and Leisure Reports and advises clients on consumer attitudes and behaviors.

The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly disrupted higher education in the US. In Fall 2020, fewer students enrolled overall and declines were especially steep at Community Colleges and among incoming Freshmen. Less incoming tuition means schools are struggling financially while also facing unexpected pandemic-related expenses. Some institutions will be forced to close, but others will emerge with a newfound capacity to offer online classes and meet demand for online-only certificate programs among adults looking to gain new skills in a recessionary job market.

Stability

Nearly all postsecondary students had their school plans for Fall 2020 changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For most, this meant in-person classes moved online, but 35% of potential students canceled their education plans altogether. Canceled plans were more common among lower-income households, many without the resources to adapt to online coursework.

Keep disadvantaged students from being squeezed out

Lower-income students are losing access to education. Fall enrollment declined significantly for public two-year institutions (ie community colleges), which often serve low-income students and students of color. These are the same students hit hardest by the unemployment spike of the current recession. Many have canceled their higher education plans because they can no longer afford classes. Others face challenges accessing the tools needed for online coursework.

Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that only about 3% of students who drop out of undergraduate classes eventually return and earn a degree. Adults without degrees have more limited earning potential than college graduates, which means the wealth gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans will continue to grow in coming years.

Security

According to Mintel research on student lifestyles, three in five current undergrads who are enrolled in campus-based degree programs say they worry about contracting COVID-19, and there is limited faith in fellow students’ willingness to follow campus health and safety rules. Among students Mintel surveyed, two in five lived in their parents’ home during the Fall term. Some students chose to stay at home for the security this offered during an uncertain year, while others likely had no option.

The full college experience

For many undergraduate students, “the college experience” is just as important as earning a degree. During the pandemic, students’ opportunities to socialize with new people, participate in campus traditions and learn to live independently away from home have been limited. As a result, some students feel cheated and question the value of their schools’ price tag.

Brands can sponsor events that simulate more normal times

Most of today’s undergraduates are technologically savvy digital natives who may be open to online approximations of traditional college experiences – but not on Zoom. After a day of classes via Zoom the last thing most students want is another Zoom meeting.

Facebook Campus is already helping socially distanced students meet classmates and stay informed about what’s happening at their schools, but campus-style events could use some digital pizazz. Schools and corporate brands could experiment with hosting concerts and pep rallies virtually on digital platforms like Fortnite or Animal Crossing.

In the recovery period, there could also be opportunities for brands to sponsor in-person events like homecoming tailgate parties or March Madness festivities for students who missed their chance to join these types of events during 2020.

Respect and support

Unprecedented challenges during the pandemic have made education difficult. Students and faculty have struggled to adapt to online classes, and students say that strict online test proctoring platforms add anxiety to an already stressful situation. Mental health services are in greater demand than ever before, and some students are dissatisfied with the resources available to them.

What we think

Most schools shifted classes online in 2020 and will emerge from the pandemic with new systems in place to accommodate online-only students. This gives nonprofit colleges and universities opportunities to compete with for-profit online higher education programs, which saw an increase in enrollment for Fall 2020.

If high unemployment and recessionary conditions continue, graduate and certificate programs are likely to see an increase in enrollment as unemployed adults attempt to change career paths and working adults seek new skills to help them win in a competitive job market.

As of November, more than a third of adults who are not currently students expressed interest in enrolling in an online certificate program starting Fall 2021. Nonprofit institutions can leverage their academic reputations to draw interest from working adults who want the convenience of an online program and might otherwise consider for-profit programs instead.

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