When COVID-19 hit the U.S., many experts warned that America’s colleges and universities could be devastated. Some of them predicted enrollment declines of up to 20%.
So far, those initial forecasts were worse than what has actually taken place. One month into the fall semester of the 2020-2021 academic year, overall enrollment was only 3% lower than at the same time a year earlier.
One kind of school, however, is faring better: for-profit colleges. Their average enrollment is up by 3%.
In contrast, at public and private nonprofit four-year universities, enrollment fell by about 1.4% and 2%, respectively.
Enrollment has declined much more at community colleges, which had 9.4% fewer students this year. This change occurred even though some experts anticipated community colleges would be more attractive in the COVID-19 era because of their lower costs and flexible transfer policies.
Factors behind the trend
Why are more students attending for-profit colleges in the middle of a pandemic?
This growth is even more surprising given that enrollment at for-profit schools – often criticized as being high priced and low quality – had fallen by an average of 10.5% annually between 2015 and 2019.
As a higher education researcher, I see several factors at play.
For-profit colleges and universities tend to be highly experienced with remote learning, they have more flexibility to deploy financial resources as needed and they have enjoyed favorable policies under the Trump administration, which notably rescinded an Obama-era rule meant to hold them accountable for ensuring that graduates are gainfully employed.