Sebastian Ajir pushed ahead with college this fall, even with all the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of his friends, however, could not stay the course.
“For me, I couldn’t afford to stop,” Ajir, a 20-year-old College of Southern Nevada student, said after wrapping up finals in mid-December. “If I let up on it, I would have fallen behind.”
A hiatus would have caused a “cascade of issues,” said the history major who plans to transfer to UNLV next fall, including potentially interrupting his financial aid.
Ajir, who works part-time in guest services at a Las Vegas museum and part-time as a student senator for CSN’s North Las Vegas campus, said his one concession to the COVID-19 upheaval was to study part-time during the fall semester — partly for financial reasons and partly due to the stress of life amid the pandemic.
Students around the country are making similarly agonizing decisions about their educational futures, but some are coming to the opposite conclusion. Common reasons include financial challenges, child care issues and wanting more in-person classes than are currently available.
College and university enrollment nationwide declined 3.3 percent this fall compared with the same time last year, according to the latest data from The National Student Clearinghouse. Only five states — Idaho, Utah, Nebraska, West Virginia and New Hampshire — bucked the trend, the group reported.
The decline in enrollment has serious implications for the economy at a time when skilled workers already are in short supply. Additionally, “Many of the millions of workers who have been laid off during the pandemic will need to train for new jobs requiring new skills,” according to a report published this week by the Brookings Institution that emphasizes the need for more support for higher education.
Nevada sheds 5,271 students
But as with other aspects of the pandemic, Nevada has been harder hit than many other states. Preliminary data from the Nevada System of Higher Education’s seven degree-granting colleges and universities indicates that enrollment declined 4.6 percent compared with fall 2019. That resulted in a net loss of 5,271 students to the NSHE system.
Many of the state’s colleges and universities held the majority of their classes remotely and plan to stick with similar formats for spring semester, which begins in January.
Only two state schools — UNLV and Nevada State College in Henderson — saw student numbers hold steady or increase this fall.
“We’re happy that we still had some degree of growth going into this fall, but it’s a little bit slower,” Nevada State College Executive Vice Provost Tony Scinta said. “(But) I do worry a lot about the economic and financial impact on students and their ability to make college work.” He said the college is trying to ramp up financial guidance for students so they know what their options are.
Preliminary figures for fall semester showed 107,858 students were enrolled in Nevada colleges and universities.
Nationwide, community colleges were hit hardest this fall, with an 18.9 percentage point drop in enrollment. For-profit four-year schools fared better, with essentially flat undergraduate student numbers. Primarily online schools saw a 4.9 percentage point gain in undergraduate students.
Locally, College of Southern Nevada, a community college with three Las Vegas Valley campuses, saw the largest drop in student numbers in the state this fall. The college had 31,444 students, according to preliminary numbers — down 12.3 percentage points.
Other Nevada community colleges also saw an enrollment decline this fall: 9.3 percentage points at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno, 5.7 percentage points at Western Nevada College in Carson City and 1.6 percentage points at Great Basin College in Elko.
At University of Nevada, Reno, preliminary NSHE data shows a 5.7 percentage point drop in fall enrollment, leaving the school with 20,021 students.
UNR received the vast majority of its applications for fall semester before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the state in early March.
Cancellations rose as pandemic arrived
But then the university saw more cancellations than it normally would. About 70 percent of those who planned to attend in the fall gave reasons related to COVID-19 when they canceled, Director of Admissions Steve Maples said, including parents losing a job, pursuing more affordable education options or just not feeling comfortable leaving home.
This year, UNR, which typically enrolls between 1,200 and 1,300 Las Vegas-area freshmen each year, is receiving fewer applicants for the fall semester than in a typical year, Maples said.
College and university enrollment tends to spike during economic downturns — something that happened during the economic recession more than a decade ago. But so far, the recession caused by COVID-19 is driving different behavior.
Nevada college officials say it’s too early to tell if they’ll eventually see an influx of students who are looking to boost their skill sets or pursue career changes.
At Nevada State College, officials will have a better handle on that in fall 2021 when they can see the full impact of the pandemic, Scinta said.
Typically when the economy goes south, community colleges — which have a mission, in part, to educate a workforce — see drastic enrollment increases, said James McCoy, interim vice president of academic affairs at the College of Southern Nevada.
“But this economic decline is different because it’s driven by the pandemic,” he said. “It’s anyone’s guess as to what the impetus will be for students to return.”
‘Weekend College’ launching in spring
It’s also causing many colleges to try new ways of attracting students.
The College of Southern Nevada this month announced it will launch “Weekend College” during spring semester with the goal of helping Southern Nevadans get back to work. The college will offer credit and noncredit classes on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays that can lead to certificates in business, education, engineering, health care, information technology, welding and air conditioning technology. Some programs can be finished in a weekend, while others will take up to a year.
“Weekend College is just one way that CSN is responding to the great need in Southern Nevada for workforce training programs that help ensure our workers are trained, skilled, and ready to enter the workforce from day one,” college President Federico Zaragoza said in a news release. “We have focused our programs on areas where we know local businesses need skilled employees.”
The college — which dabbled in the past with offering late night classes — recognizes the Las Vegas area is a 24/7 community and wants to provide offerings that are accessible to students, McCoy said.
How the College of Southern Nevada is responding
The vast majority of the College of Southern Nevada’s enrollment decline this fall was influenced by COVID-19-related factors, Zaragoza told NSHE’s Board of Regents earlier this month.
One factor was modality — the format in which classes are offered — since many students do better with in-person classes, Zaragoza said. The college also lost about 30 percent of its enrollment capacity in hands-on lab courses in the applied sciences due to social distancing and capacity requirements, he said.
Some adult returning students also dropped out, Zaragoza said, noting about 70 percent of the college’s students are enrolled part time.
Ajir took online college classes prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and “I figured I was used to it.”
But Ajir noted some professors don’t have experience teaching online, causing a major drop-off in quality.
College of Southern Nevada Student Body President Karli Kelly, 23, said she heard some students didn’t want to return for fall semester because the majority of classes were online. But faculty, administrators and the NSHE Board of Regents want to make the experience for students as seamless as possible, she said, and she appreciates that.
Kelly, who has attended the college since 2017 and was enrolled part time in the fall, is studying biology and the pandemic “inspired me more because the world is in need of medical professionals,” she said. Her career goal is to become a dermatologist.
Nevada State College and UNLV, both of which saw fall enrollment either stay flat or rise, had good success at student retention.
Enrollment at Nevada State College, which opened in 2002, has been growing rapidly in recent years, so much so that it is currently the second-fastest growing college in the nation.
Preliminary NSHE data shows 7,297 students were enrolled at Nevada State College in the fall semester — a 30.8 percentage point increase over last year. But officials warn that the figure is skewed by huge growth in the number of nondegree-seeking students, including high school students taking dual enrollment classes.
Growth slows at NSC
Among degree-seeking students, enrollment was up 5 percentage points this fall — far below the double-digit increases of recent years.
A handful of academic programs at the college, though, saw significant growth in fall enrollment, including education, visual media and biology. Plus, the number of freshmen and transfer students was also slightly higher than fall 2019.
The college also saw its highest one-year retention rate — 79 percent, according to the preliminary data of students who enrolled for the first time in 2019.
“That was good to see because I was really worried that some of them would get bumped out of picture by a whole host of circumstances,” Scinta said.
UNLV had 31,052 students during fall semester, nearly the same number as a year ago. The university saw about a 1 percentage point increase in the number of degree-seeking students, countered by a decline of more than 33 percentage points in nondegree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students.
Steve McKellips, associate vice president for enrollment and student services and students at UNLV, said everyone registering for spring semester is fully aware of the pandemic and its ability to disrupt.
Many of Nevada’s college and university administrators say it’s too early how such widespread awareness might affect enrollment.
At UNR, Maples said he expects incoming students will be realistic about expectations since they’re applying during a pandemic that they have lived through for months.
“This summer, the hope is that things will get better,” he said, holding out hope that enrollment will hold steady or even increase for fall.