College Commitment Scenarios and Changing Student Opinions Amidst COVID-19

Carnegie Higher Ed May 14, 2020 Carnegie Higher Ed Persona The Visionary Frontrunner

Carnegie Dartlet releases follow-up report of high school senior prospects critically timed after the May 1 college commitment date, revealing key insights on potential melt

Losing a third of committed students by fall open was never considered a reality before COVID-19. Our follow-up survey with high school seniors after the May 1 college commitment deadline suggests going fully online, especially without a financial incentive, could cause just that. Prospective students are rapidly losing interest in online courses.

While some states pondered reopening and others dug in for another month at home, prospective college students faced a critical decision on May 1. Many schools still required a commitment for the fall, and students scrambled to weigh their needs with what information schools offered. With that in mind, Carnegie Dartlet initiated a second wave of survey research to examine what has changed since our first high school senior prospective student survey as well as the scenarios ahead and how the current situation might influence deferrals and cancellations. We received nearly 3,000 responses, and the full analysis and reporting will be available soon. You can read the full report here or review our robust data tables for specific demographic breakouts.

Student concern is up, but likelihood to delay has not wavered

Despite the crushing effects of the virus, prospective students are resilient. Their concern has increased significantly, with 60% saying they have “a lot” of worry or worse about how COVID-19 will impact their higher education. This is up from 50% in March. Despite this, student likelihood for delay has not increased from March to May, with 42% saying they will not delay enrollment under any circumstances, and just 2% saying they were already making plans to delay.

Student concern table

Commitment melt is tied to fall format and price considerations

Scenario-based “if, then” reporting was a new measure added to the May survey. For committed students, this took the form of multiple format changes a school could take in the fall, from simply adding social distancing guidelines to going fully online. The findings show that likelihood to lose committed students is highly tied to a school’s fall plans. For example, schools that open with simple social distancing are likely to retain 95% of their commitments, while opening with no measures of protection drops that to 88%. More drastically, going fully online this fall has about a third of students considering a deferral or cancelation. Even worse are schools that wait to make their decision until the month they intend to start coursework. Of note, lower SES students had a higher chance to defer or cancel regardless of situation. As such, financial information was also gathered.

Commitment melt

Student perception of online learning tumbles, would require financial adjustment

At the start of the closures and panic, many students noted a greater acceptability of online coursework than normally seen. By May, that bump has vanished. Students have reverted to a clear dislike of remote learning. Qualitative entries suggest this is at least partially due to having poor online course experiences to finish their senior year. More than a quarter of students will not consider taking the majority of their coursework online at all (up from 18% in March).

This perception is closely related to a consideration of cost. An overwhelming majority (95%) of respondents said a move to online coursework, even partially, requires at least some change in the cost of attendance. A full move to online had more than half of prospects saying they would need a significant reduction of cost to be satisfied with the value of their education. Simply waiving campus fees was not often enough to convince students. The information on format scenarios and fee amounts should be used in tandem for understanding the likelihood of melt as well as signals to still uncommitted students who saw both as important to their final decision-making.

Cost change

Students appreciated moved deadlines, even if it didn’t impact them

The situation of every school on a student’s list moving back its decision deadline was rare among our sample (12%). This presented some challenge for students trying to balance those that did and those that did not. And while a majority of prospects had already made their college choice, even those who were committed to a school said they appreciated the gesture of moving back the deadline.

“The college I committed to pushed back their decision date and that really solidified my desire to go there because of how flexible and accommodating they are in response to the coronavirus situation. It makes me hopeful that this college can help me with whatever problems may arise.” ~ committed female survey respondent, Midwest

Overall, only 8% of students saw the shift as unfavorable in any way. Uncommitted students were, not surprisingly, even more favorable of the date changes. Most see the extra time as a way to select the best fit for them while seeing what schools might do for fall.

“(I want to know) what each school plans to do next semester. I want to know if the school is going to be smart in making its decisions and for the majority of its students.” ~ uncommitted male survey respondent, West Coast

How timing and analysis improves survey research

In change-over-time surveys, two things are critical. The first is the timing window. The initial survey from Carnegie Dartlet launched on March 19—the height of the first spike in closures and panic. Our second survey was strategically positioned after the critical May 1 deposit deadline. Timing matters. 

The second consideration of change-over-time surveys are consistent sampling and transparency in demographics. Our demographic profile of responses was nearly identical from the first survey to the second survey, and our full report will include breakouts of each demographic group to demonstrate the importance of understanding data for the constituents most important to your decision-making.

The questions in our follow-up survey replicated many from the initial question set. This allows for direct comparisons. We also added new questions based on suggestions from industry insiders as to what information is needed now.

Moving forward

Regardless of the decisions schools make, students are looking for more communication and reassurance than ever before. Being authentic in response and transparent in planning can go a long way in securing a class for fall. Carnegie Dartlet is committed to continuing its research and strategy on COVID-19 and its impact on the higher education industry. 

Perhaps the most important finding from our study was this: students have not lost hope. They want their college experience. Let’s work together to bring them the best options possible.

Check out our other resources on how to keep your campus community engaged and informed during COVID-19. You can also follow us on Twitter as we continue to post updates there as well. Questions or concerns? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us!

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