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As a high school senior, Alex Semere applied and was accepted to colleges across the country, ranging from Alabama to Pennsylvania. Then the coronavirus hit.

Now he’s accepted a full-ride scholarship to study business and computer science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, just an hour’s drive north on I-25 from where he grew up in Aurora, Colorado.

“Before this COVID situation, I actually didn’t want to stay in Colorado,” he says. “I wanted to be as far away as possible. But when this...happened, I started rethinking my choices.”

Semere was worried about being halfway across the country from his family if someone got sick. “And if they’re 1,000 miles away from me, it would be a lot harder for them to reach me than if I’m only up in Fort Collins,” he says.

Semere is one of the many rising college freshmen who have reconsidered where they want to go to college since the coronavirus upended their senior year of high school. Many, like Semere, have chosen to stay closer to home rather than go out of state, while others are looking at taking a year off to work or to avoid taking online classes.

More than one in five recent high school graduates have changed their first-choice school since January, according to a May report from McKinsey & Company. The top reasons for doing so were finances, a desire to stay closer to home, and wanting to avoid coronavirus hotspots. McKinsey predicted that U.S. higher education could see as much as a 15% enrollment drop among domestic first-year students if the fall semester goes remote.

Another source of enrollment uncertainty: international students. They have faced challenges related to travel bans, delays in visa processing at consulates abroad, and visa guidance prohibiting first-time international students from coming to the U.S. if their classes are online only.

If out-of-state and international students don’t show up this fall, it will be a significant financial blow to some colleges, and the ripple effect could be fewer courses, services, or even seats for in-state, domestic students, experts say.

In a July survey, the Institute for International Education found that 50% of institutions reported fewer applications from international students for fall 2020. Many of those applications were submitted were before the Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced earlier this month that international students wouldn’t be allowed into the country if their classes were all online. After a flurry of confusion and lawsuits, the agency clarified last week that current students would be allowed to return, but it would not issue any F-1 visas for first-time international students studying remotely.

The current uncertainty around fall enrollment is unprecedented, say university enrollment managers.

“We’re so used to things being predictable — as predictable as a 17-year-old student can be,” says George Zimmerman, executive director of admissions and recruitment at West Virginia University (WVU). “You do what you do every year. You have a cycle. You know your yield rate. And this year has just...turned everyone upside-down. You look at your numbers and your numbers don’t mean anything.”

It's not just colleges that are unsure how many students will show up only a few weeks out from the start of fall term. Students, too, are still waiting for more information. More than a quarter of institutions have yet to announce their plans for the fall semester, according to the C2i COVID-19 Dashboard. The dashboard, an initiative out of Davidson College, tracks how almost 3,000 postsecondary institutions are responding to the pandemic. Several surveys have indicated whether colleges offer in-person instruction will be an important factor in students' final decision making about fall.

How Out-of-State and International Enrollment Affects College Budgets

While out-of-state and international students pay a premium at public institutions (in some cases three times as much), private institutions often depend on tuition for their budgets more than their public counterparts. In 2017-18, tuition and fees made up 20% of revenue for four-year public institutions and 31% for four-year private nonprofit institutions.

Still, public institutions are facing state budget cuts — ranging from 5% in Texas to as much as 50% in North Carolina. And following the 2008 recession, many public institutions turned to the higher prices paid by out-of-state and international students to help offset declines in public funding. Other states have also recruited from outside their borders to offset declines in in-state populations, particularly in areas such as the Northeast and Midwest. A recent study from Moody’s found that the states that are at greatest risk of declining enrollment are North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire, which all have more than a 40% reliance on non-resident students.

But those strategies may not be an option to survive this recession, which is why there’s such concern over a drop in out-of-state and international enrollment.

“Plenty of folks out there are busy revisiting their business model,” says Jeff Riedinger, vice provost for global affairs at University of Washington (UW) in Seattle. “The strategies that got higher ed through the 2008 crisis will not serve them well in the future, and particularly not in the current political climate in the US.”

Typically, the majority of students go to a college within 50 to 100 miles of where they live. That’s not likely to change, says Ben Waxman, CEO of global education marketing agency Intead. “But every percentage point that you go down in enrollment is exceedingly painful financially for institutions.”

How Colleges Are Managing the Uncertainty

West Virginia University and University of Washington have both weathered the current storm, so far at least. More than half of West Virginia’s incoming first-year class are from out-of-state or abroad. “Our declining in-state population really makes it impossible for WVU to be sustainable with in-state tuition,” Zimmerman says.

Surprisingly, the numbers have held. Zimmerman attributes that to the fact that many non-resident students come from states within driving distance, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, New York, and New Jersey. He also says that WVU has been incredibly transparent in communicating as its plan for fall evolved.

At UW, administrators are expecting “summer melt” to be twice as high as in previous years, referring to the fact that some students simply won’t show up in the fall. Out of a first-year class of approximately 7,000, around 1,500 are from out-of-state and 1,000 are international.

The current plan is to offer less than 10% of the fall undergraduate classes on the Seattle campus in person, primarily in disciplines such as the health sciences and engineering that require hands-on instruction. The university is also creating 2-credit, in-person classes that could be options for first-year international students to meet the visa guidelines.

At University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, the incoming first-year class is made up of about 65% Minnesota residents and 15% from five neighboring states that have a reciprocal agreement for in-state tuition. Another 15% are non-residents from other states and 5% are international, according to Robert McMaster, vice provost and dean of undergraduate education.

Right now, McMaster says, the number of international students who have committed are down about 20% compared to the same time last year, but confirmations from Minnesota and neighboring states are up 6% and 10%, respectively. McMaster says that’s probably due to the trend of students staying closer to home, but “we won't know for sure until the students arrive.”

Like UW, Minnesota is also expecting slightly higher-than-average summer melt.

The California State University (CSU) system, which was first to announce that fall 2020 would be remote, is more worried about the impact of international student enrollment. Ninety-five percent of CSU students come from California, but almost 13,000 international students study on the system’s 23 campuses. The system will allow new international students to enroll from abroad in an online program or defer their admission until in-person instruction resumes, according to Leo Van Cleve, assistant vice chancellor of international and off-campus programs.

“We’re very concerned that our first-time enrollment for this fall is going to be down significantly,” he says. For one, visa sections at consulates and embassies have been closed since April, he says. “They are starting to reopen, but we’re now three weeks from the start of the semester for most of our campuses. Getting a visa in three weeks is… going to be a challenge.”

The financial blow is not just on university tuition, he says.

“These students live in our communities,” he says. “They’ve rented housing on the private market, they eat, they go out, they buy books, they buy personal supplies, and so on.” Although international students only make up 5.5% percent of the total U.S. higher education population, they contribute $41 billion to the U.S. economy every year.

In addition, tuition from international students “enables us to offer a broader range of classes, and additional places for domestic students,” Van Cleve says. The presence of international students on campus also prepares all students to work and live in a global environment.

The expected enrollment declines will have ramifications beyond this upcoming fall. Riedinger, at UW, points out that enrollment changes don’t just affect this year’s budget — the financial impact will be felt for at least four more years.

Nithy Sevanthinathan is director of international student services at Houston Community College, which hosts more international students than any other community college in the U.S. International students typically make up about 16% of the study body. But this year, the college is expecting a 15% drop from the 5,600 international students that enrolled there in 2018-19.

He remembers how long it took for the international education sector to recover after 9/11 — and worries the same will happen now. “This thing doesn't happen overnight,” Sevanthinathan says. “It takes years and years to build the services that we provide to ensure that students want to come here and are successful.”

This story has been updated to correct the number of international students enrolled in the California State University system.

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