After Coronavirus, Colleges Worry: Will Students Return?

Orientation day, said Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, “is probably the first time you’re going to know who’s really going to show up. Then you’ve got to scramble to add faculty or fire faculty or shift faculty. A lot of things that would have been done in a considered way will now in all likelihood be done at the last minute.”

One group of students that could see a silver lining, said Hafeez Lakhani, a college admissions coach, is high school juniors. Despite disruptions to testing and the admissions process, it could be easier for them to get into their stretch schools or off the wait list if overall enrollment declines — especially for those who can afford to pay full tuition, if fewer international students apply to U.S. schools.

Small institutions like Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., are more vulnerable to financial setbacks than big ones. Hampshire’s president, Ed Wingenbach, has put together a working group that is considering shorter units of study that would allow students to cycle in and out of remote learning if the virus comes and goes.

“If we’re looking at remote learning in the fall,” he said, “I think it’s more likely students will take a gap year or semester, and that will have a different impact on revenue.”

Ms. McCarville, the student in Phoenix, said the coronavirus had made her more sensitive to price over marquee names, and to the value of being close to her family. Although her dream schools, Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, offered her scholarships, tuition at Arizona State was cheaper, and the overall package was better.

In the past, that might not have mattered to her. But after the coronavirus, it does.

“I would rather go to the least expensive school possible,” Ms. McCarville said, “just so I minimize my debt when I enter the work force, and I’m not in over my head in a very uncertain situation.”

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