For Joseph Burch, a sophomore undeclared major, the thought of another semester of online instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic filled him with dread — enough dread, in fact, that he decided to take a leave of absence for the Spring 2021 semester.
“I realized I had completed two semesters of online classes and really didn’t have much to show for it,” Burch said. “I was still undecided, had seen my grades dip, and just wasn’t getting the college experience I had wanted through Zoom.”
Some students like Burch are taking time off this semester as COVID-19 keeps most classes online and students reconsider their immediate academic futures. As a result, lower enrollment and the subsequent loss in tuition dollars has made a ripple effect throughout Temple University’s administration, causing the institution to change its admissions strategies and worrying adjunct faculty about their job security.
The effects of COVID-19 on student enrollment were felt almost immediately, with universities seeing a four percent dip in enrollment within the first month of the Fall 2020 semester alone, Forbes reported.
Temple’s attempt at holding nonessential classes in person during Fall 2020 fell through when an outbreak of the virus forced the university to transition to mostly online instruction only weeks into the semester, The Temple News reported.
The pandemic accelerated a gradual decline in enrollment in higher education nationwide. Between 2011 and 2019, enrollment at colleges and universities nationwide declined 11 percent, largely due to a combination of factors including the economy, demographic changes and the rising cost of tuition, NPR reported.
With this changing admissions landscape, Temple is navigating enrollment declines as students question whether they want to continue attending school during a pandemic.
Shawn Abbott, vice provost of admissions, financial aid and enrollment management, said that Temple’s decline in enrollment for the Spring 2021 semester is consistent with the national average and represents a major shift compared to what numbers looked like prior to the pandemic.
“We are in a very different world than we were one year ago,” he added.
Overall, the Fall 2020 semester saw a 4.4 percent decrease in undergraduate enrollment, InsideHigherEd reported.
Despite hopes that in-person learning would be safe by Spring 2021, the pandemic wore on and continued to affect student enrollment, Abbott said.
“Unfortunately, our hopes that by spring there would be some return to normalcy didn’t end up being true at Temple or any other university across the country,” he added.
Not only are more current students taking time off, Temple also saw a record number of incoming students defer their admission, Abbott said.
Temple has also seen a decrease in transfer students from community colleges, a demographic which historically makes up a significant part of the university’s admissions pipeline, Abbott said.
“Community colleges have been some of the hardest hit by the pandemic,” he added. “And we’re seeing that reflected in the lack of students transferring from these institutions.”
While the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated declines in enrollment at colleges and universities across the country, other systemic causes, like a slowing economy, a reduction in the number of international students and fewer high school students graduating in Temple’s geographic area, may also be playing a role, said Raymond Betzner, a spokesperson for the university, in an email to The Temple News.
“If you are at the lower socioeconomic end of the spectrum and struggling to stay afloat or meet your basic needs, it’s likely that seeking admission to an institution of higher education is not an immediate concern,” Abbott said.
TAKING TIME OFF
In addition to the frustration and fatigue associated with online instruction, some students took time off due to grievances with the cost of tuition for online instruction.
Rebecca Werez, a senior journalism major, said the idea of paying full tuition to take online classes was not worth falling further into debt. She decided to take both the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 semesters off, choosing to work at Reading Terminal Market and save money.
“Despite the best efforts of my professors, I really struggled with online classes when they first started last spring,” Werez said. “Approaching the fall semester, I kept thinking, ‘Why should I take a class that I could very well fail while paying full price for a lesser experience?’”
Last spring, an online petition calling for the lowering of tuition for the Fall 2020 semester received more than 15,000 signatures, illustrating the widespread discontent among students about the university charging full cost tuition for online instruction.
Temple froze tuition for the second consecutive year in the 2020-21 academic year, The Temple News reported.
In July 2020, university chief financial officer Ken Kaiser said in a Temple Now announcement that freezing tuition “was all we thought we could afford while still keeping the university financially viable,” rather than discounting it this academic year.
While Werez has not yet formally withdrawn from Temple, she plans to transfer to culinary school at the Community College of Philadelphia this coming fall.
Burch is also considering pursuing an alternate path outside of the traditional academic route, partly due to the loss of his merit-based scholarship.
Per university financial aid policy, students with merit-based scholarships risk losing them if they choose to take a leave of absence.
Burch’s time off led him to consider possibly not returning to Temple at all and instead pursuing trade school.
“Without this time off, it’s probably not something I would have ever considered,” Burch said. “With not taking classes, though, I’ve had the opportunity to look at other options.”
Abbott hopes that when things stabilize with the COVID-19 pandemic, students who are currently taking time off will rematriculate, although enrollment trends have been difficult to predict.
“The pandemic has us operating on a semester-to-semester basis, so the amount of students that will return after taking time off is still unknown,” he said.
Students weren’t the only ones facing difficult decisions regarding their potential return to Temple. Adjunct faculty, who are hired on a semester-by-semester basis, continue to face uncertainty surrounding their employment as enrollment declines, said Steve Newman, an English professor and president of the Temple Association of University Professionals.
In October 2020, intellectual heritage professors received an email, which The Temple News obtained, warning that “significantly fewer” adjunct professors would be rehired in the Intellectual Heritage department for the Spring 2021 semester.
The email, sent by the director of the IH department, Dustin Kidd, cited financial concerns for the uncertainty around the rehiring of adjuncts after Temple projected a $45 million loss the semester prior due to its refunding of students the cost of housing, meal plans and parking passes, The Temple News reported.
“I don’t envy the decisions the university has had to make, but with that said, a lot of our faculty have experienced a lot of uncertainty and confusion, especially around who was being picked to teach for spring and how,” Newman said.
Deborah Lemieur, an intellectual heritage instructor since 2009, is teaching only one section of the course this semester, one less than usual.
“I’ve loved teaching in IH and have poured my heart into this job, despite the various trials of being an adjunct,” Lemieur said. “But when this spring I learned they had taken one of my classes away, I was shocked and furious.”
Amid lower enrollment, Temple’s administration remains committed to providing the best quality education possible while keeping costs as low as possible, Betzner wrote.
“On the one hand, the issue is simple having fewer students means the need for fewer classes, and fewer people to teach those classes,” Betzner wrote.
A NEW STRATEGY
With enrollment declining, the university’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions is adapting by changing aspects of their admissions strategy by relaxing testing standards and expanding their virtual admissions programming.
With 75 percent of applicants for Fall 2020 opting not to submit standardized test scores, Temple’s admissions department has pivoted to alternative ways to evaluate prospective students, Abbott said.
“We’re putting greater emphasis on academic performance and rigor in high school, extracurricular impact outside the classroom, as well as work experience,” he added.
Following the outbreak of COVID-19, safety concerns prevented many high school students from taking college entrance exams, leading many colleges to drop standardized testing requirements as part of their applications, U.S. News reported.
Despite the ongoing pandemic, Temple saw a large increase in early action applications for the Fall 2021 semester, and a “drastic increase” in Black and international applicants, Abbott said.
“Among the 16,000 early action applications we received, which was a university record, we saw a 27 percent increase in the amount of Black students that applied and a 22 percent increase in the number of international students that applied,” Abbott added.
This increase is partly thanks to increased virtual admissions programming available to prospective students, which is traditionally done by admissions counselors in person at high schools across the country, Abbott said.
Amid trepid hopes that the pandemic will have subsided by next fall, Abbott is hoping that the potential return to in-person instruction next fall will stabilize enrollment.
Newman is also hopeful that higher enrollment and more class offerings next fall could lead to the rehiring of adjunct faculty.
“The hardships caused by this pandemic are being felt at all levels of academic institutions right now,” Newman said. “Still, we have to be doing everything in our power to protect and bolster the interests of both our students and our faculty.”