The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted higher education, posing unique challenges for colleges and universities as they plan for the 2020-21 academic year. Many of those challenges are related to fall enrollment levels; e.g., student health and safety, affordability, and the ability of international students to obtain and extend visas. Administrators are also grappling with how to execute a hybrid (physical/virtual) model of learning and how that might impact enrollment.
In response, here is a set of recommendations to help administrators manage these uncertainties and navigate the economic and operational obstacles ahead.
Sharon Butler is executive vice president of global education at Flywire.
To ensure financial solvency, institutions need to craft clear policies that give students and families the confidence to enroll now with the intent to begin studies in the fall. To that end:
- Request that students accepted for upcoming studies commit to their desired program in accordance with standard offer deadlines. Also request they make deposits for the upcoming semester in a timely manner.
- Operate on the assumption (and communicate) that their commitment is contingent upon students being able to travel to campus and the higher ed institution being able to deliver an experience that resembles traditional academic programs.
Higher ed institutions can build the confidence necessary to support international student enrollment by creating flexibility with school visa policies and proactively sharing information on visa availability and regulations.
- Offer students a minimum of the following two choices if “normal travel” or “normal experience” conditions are not possible 30 days prior to the semester start:
- 1. Start with online learning and convert to on-campus studies as soon as the college or university is able to offer that option and the student is able to make the necessary arrangements.
2. Defer their start until a subsequent semester when conditions are met at least 30 days prior to that semester start and consider options for part-time online study prior to arrival on campus.
Affordability and payment plans
The economic disruption of COVID-19 may make it harder for students and families to afford previously accessible programs. This will lead to increased reliance on both financial aid and payment plans. As such, we recommend that administrators:
- Make payment plans available to all students. This can help spread tuition expenses across smaller, easier-to-manage payments. Ideally, plans are front-loaded to help schools receive tuition payments and fees before the start of school.
- Consider modifying standard terms to provide longer payment periods that extend into the school term; e.g., offer a six-month plan that runs June-November to reduce the monthly amount due.
International students make invaluable cultural, academic and financial contributions to educational institutions, but their ability to obtain and extend student visas is being jeopardized by government closures. Higher ed institutions can build the confidence necessary to support fall 2020 semester enrollment by creating flexibility with school visa policies and proactively sharing information on visa availability and regulations. Consider:
- Initial student visa: Can the student secure the necessary visa in time to start their intended program of study?
- Visa continuity: Will study disruptions (e.g., converting to online classes or being out of the visa-issuing country for a longer than an intended period) harm their visa status?
- Post-study visa extensions: For those countries where studies can lead to extended post-study visas, are visa extensions still available?
For reference, we have gathered student visa data from a variety of sources and segmented it by leading international study country destinations. Additionally, in support of foreign students and institutions, we are leading a campaign to influence policy change at the state and federal level with the goal of ensuring that international students have every ability to resume their studies when it’s safe to do so.
The COVID-19 crisis has created enormous uncertainties for colleges and universities planning for the fall semester. To offset some of these challenges, schools should clearly define enrollment policies and contingencies, create flexible plans to make tuition more affordable, and communicate with international students about the latest visa information. All of these things can help provide students and families with the confidence they need to enroll now with the intent to commence studies in the fall.