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Enrollment plummeted at many New England colleges this fall

Lasell University's undergraduate enrollment dropped about 6 percent, or about 100 students.
Lasell University's undergraduate enrollment dropped about 6 percent, or about 100 students.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Many New England colleges experienced unprecedented enrollment declines this fall, as students opted out of remote learning or job losses pushed tuition out of reach, putting further pressure on financially struggling institutions.

At more than two dozen colleges and universities across the region, the number of full-time graduate and undergraduate students plummeted by more than 20 percent this September compared with the previous year, according to the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional accrediting agency.

Another 50 colleges saw their enrollments drop by between 10 and 20 percent, according to Lawrence M. Schall, president of the accrediting agency.

“[The pandemic] will accelerate the financial pressures,” Schall said. “The schools that were weak coming in are going to be weaker coming out.”

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Colleges nationally have also seen enrollments decline. According to a survey of more than 9.2 million students, released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment fell by 4 percent, driven in large part by first-year students opting not to attend college this fall. Total undergraduate and graduate enrollment is down 3 percent nationally compared to the same time last year.

Nationally, there are 16 percent fewer first-year students attending college, and the erosion is even sharper at community colleges, where first-year enrollment plunged by more than 22 percent, according to the clearinghouse.

The pandemic has hit community colleges and many of the students they serve — low-income, working parents, and Latino and Black degree-seekers — particularly hard. The public health crisis of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing effect on the economy have meant job losses and additional child care responsibilities for these students and have forced many to shelve their college plans.

In Connecticut, for example, community college enrollment is down about 15 percent, Schall said. At some community colleges in Massachusetts, the number of students taking classes has fallen by 7 percent or more.

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Cape Cod Community College administrators have spent recent months trying to talk students into staying on the path to earning an associate’s degree, even if they can take only one class, said John Cox, the college president.

Cox said he fears that students who step away entirely may not return, as other responsibilities and financial obligations take priority. At Cape Cod, course enrollment is down by 7 percent, he said.

Some students lost jobs, and others didn’t know whether their children’s schools would be open or their children would be learning from home, competing for limited quiet space and Internet bandwidth, Cox said.

Cape Cod is trying to break up classes into shorter terms, instead of semesters, that may be more manageable for students who are struggling financially and with planning for the future, Cox said.

“There are a lot of potential higher-ed students waiting on the sidelines,” he said. “We had hoped we would have captured more people; it’s been more of a challenge.”

Cape Cod’s revenues are down, but it had planned for even larger enrollment declines and is trying to save money on utility expenses and other reductions since students are learning remotely, Cox said.

Much will also depend on the state’s budget. Governor Charlie Baker earlier this week proposed a slight increase in higher education funding.

While the pandemic won’t be catastrophic for the higher education industry, according to Schall, there will likely be more layoffs, mergers, and consolidations coming at both public and private colleges.

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“A lot of this is out of the control of institutions,” Schall said. “It has more to do with our national response to the pandemic or lack thereof. And I would say going forward, either this spring or even next fall, a lot depends on whether that response improves and we don’t see a massive second wave."

The accrediting agency provides financial and academic oversight to more than 220 public and private institutions in New England, and asked colleges to provide an update on enrollment and cash on hand at the end of September in an effort to develop an early warning system to flag any schools suddenly in financial danger.

The agency is keeping a close watch on colleges that saw an enrollment drop of more than 20 percent this fall and hold less than two months of operating cash on hand. Most of the schools in those categories were already being monitored by the agency before the pandemic, Schall said, although three additional small colleges have been added to the list as a result of the September survey.

Schall declined to provide the names of the colleges and their financial outlooks.

But the pandemic and the enrollment declines have spurred colleges to reconsider the cost of degrees and whether there are ways to bring prices down through online education, said Michael Alexander, president of Lasell University in Newton.

It was getting harder and harder for lower- and middle-income families to pay for college, even before the pandemic, Alexander said. “We do believe when the pandemic ends, it is going to be different.”

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At Lasell, many incoming first-year students decided late in the summer to take this semester or year off, he said.

Alexander believes that the university held on to more of its returning students by offering them options, including either an on-campus or remote experience, at different price points. For example, tuition for students who opted for online instruction was $7,500 a semester cheaper.

Between the decline in freshman enrollment and loss of new international students who couldn’t travel to campus or get visas, Lasell’s undergraduate enrollment dropped about 6 percent, or about 100 students, Alexander said.

“We don’t think folks decided to go elsewhere,” Alexander said. “They just didn’t show up.”

The university is also earning less in room and board revenue this semester. Instead of 77 percent of students living on campus, just 52 percent are doing so this fall, Alexander said.

Lasell, however, has saved money by freezing certain positions when employees leave and laying off some workers. The university has also increased some of its graduate student enrollment and received financial help from donors and through the federal stimulus program last spring, Alexander said.

But how the virus progresses and when a vaccine will be widely available remain unpredictable, said Alexander, who developed four different budgets for various scenarios this summer.

“We’re remaining flexible,” Alexander said. “If things get worse, we’ll have to do more [cuts].”

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Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.