As students make college plans for the fall, some U.S. universities are seeing surging interest from in-state residents who are looking to stay closer to home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
At the University of Texas at Arlington, commitments from state residents are up 26% over last year. Ohio State and Western Kentucky universities are both up about 20%. Deposits paid to attend Michigan State University are up 15% among state residents, while deposits from others are down 15%.
Colleges and admissions counselors credit the uptick to a range of factors tied to the pandemic. Students want to be closer to home in case an outbreak again forces classes online. Some are choosing nearby schools where they're charged lower rates as state residents. And amid uncertainty around the fall term, some are paying deposits at multiple schools to keep their options open.
At the same time, scores of universities are bracing for sharp downturns in international enrollments amid visa issues and travel concerns. The result, some schools say, is that campuses will have a more local feel if they're allowed to reopen this fall.
“We are going to be a more regional and local university,” Bob McMaster, vice provost of the University of Minnesota, told the school's board of regents at a May meeting. “The spheres of geography have certainly changed this year.”
Universities across the U.S. have ramped up recruiting efforts amid fears that the pandemic would spur students to rethink their plans. Schools have accepted more students and reached far deeper into wait lists than in the past. Some have increased financial aid. And some have focused on recruiting students in their own backyards.
At the University of Minnesota, recruiters shifted attention away from bigger cities to focus on Minnesota, Wisconsin and other nearby states, McMaster said. In May, New Jersey launched a campaign urging students who had left to “come home” for college.
Lisa Gelman, a private admissions counselor with Apt Tutoring in Massachusetts, said many students are rethinking earlier decisions to study far away or in cities that have become virus hot spots, including New York.
For years, Lizzie Quinlivan dreamed of leaving her home in Massachusetts to study at the University of Southern California. In March, she got in. But by then, the virus was spreading across the U.S.
“Anything that required a flight was suddenly off my list,” said Quinlivan, of Hingham. “I completely crossed off all California schools and even Midwest schools because of the pandemic."
Instead, she took an offer from Georgetown University in Washington. The risk of another virus outbreak still worries her, Quinlivan said, but she can get home by car or train if students are forced to leave campus like they were in the spring.
For other students, the pandemic opened unexpected opportunities. Before the virus spread, Jessica Moskowitz had been placed on wait lists by some of her top schools. But as colleges scrambled to offset projected enrollment losses, she got offers from New York University, Emory University and Claremont McKenna College.
If Moskowitz, of Salt Lake City, had been admitted to Emory under normal circumstances, she thinks she would have accepted. Instead she’s enrolling at the University of California, Santa Barbara, partly to stay closer to home but also because she was accepted there before the pandemic.
“They wanted me from the beginning, and it never feels good to be second fiddle, to be someone's second choice,” Moskowitz said. “Although these are amazing colleges and I was so lucky to be offered admission to them, it feels like maybe they’re just using me to fill seats in the fall."
Amid uncertainty over the course of the outbreak, more than 400 colleges extended commitment deadlines from May 1 to June 1. Scores of universities have announced plans to offer in-person instruction in the fall, but most also are preparing plans to keep classes online if needed.
Among 20 public colleges that provided preliminary data to The Associated Press, roughly half reported increases in total freshman confirmations, reaching as high as 30%. The other half saw decreases of up to 15%. Some saw ebbing interest from students in other states, while others held even.
Offsetting some increases in in-state students are plunging numbers for international students. At the University of Florida, new international confirmations are down 50%, the school’s data show. The University of Minnesota is down 28%, while Ohio State reported a 21% drop.
It’s still unclear, though, how many will end up enrolling. Even during normal years, some students who pay deposits don’t show up in the fall. That “summer melt” is expected to be far higher this year as more students keep their options open.
As an extra complication, colleges are playing by new admissions rules this year. In the past, schools agreed to stop recruiting freshmen after May 1, but a December antitrust case from the Justice Department brought an end to that limit and others that authorities say stymied competition. As a result, colleges expect their competitors to continue making offers to students through the summer.
At some public colleges, officials say the numbers are better than they would have imagined in March, when some were predicting precipitous drops in enrollment.
At Western Kentucky, freshmen commitments are up 11% compared to last year. But students have told officials that, if classes stay online, they plan to take a year off or enroll elsewhere. Jace Lux, the school’s enrollment director, worries that the situation could “change on a dime.”
“A picture that looks good today can look really bad tomorrow,” Lux said. “Enrollment across the country is precarious right now, and if this thing takes a turn that we weren’t expecting, then all bets are off.”