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The Pandemic-Era Lessons Higher Ed Can Use to Improve Its Finances

Higher education is in a state of change due to various factors, not the least of which is the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


Charlie Mulligan

Co-Founder and Managing Director, GiveGab

From spring 2020 to spring 2021, college enrollment rates fell by 3.5 percent, to 16.9 million students, according to a June 2021 report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. This decline is seven times that of the prior year, and undergraduate students accounted for all of it.

Flint Brenton, CEO at Syntellis Performance Solutions, said those lowered rates are in part the result of changing student values during and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The biggest barrier to enrollment was ignited by the pandemic, but it has been around for a while: higher education’s value proposition within its existing delivery model,” said Brenton, whose company provides financial planning solutions to various sectors of the economy, including higher education. 

Specifically, Brenton explained, many students realized the cost-saving benefits of remote learning while living at home. 

“​​Now, many aren’t interested in giving that up to enroll in on-campus classes,” Brenton said. “This rapid transition has changed the student experience and eroded traditional campus offerings, while illuminating significant questions about the higher education model for the first time in a century.”

Those students who seek campus learning want more out of the experience than what schools have previously offered, said Charlie Mulligan, co-founder and managing director of GiveGab, a division of the nonprofit EveryAction. 

“For the cost of higher education enrollment,” Mulligan explained, “students want a fully immersive experience of campus life and academic collaboration. They are considering the cost vs. value of what campus engagement is like during a pandemic with the unknowns of in-person collaboration and virtual engagement.” 

Planning for the future

Educational institutions need a strategic, long-term financial plan to account for declining enrollment rates, both those resulting from the pandemic and those stemming from the 2007–08 recession, which subsequently caused a low birth rate. 

“A mix-and-match approach to assumptions allows leaders to examine conservative and aggressive scenarios individually or in conjunction with other scenarios, including whether or not there is a decrease in enrollment,” Brenton said. “Other factors to consider with scenario analysis include revenue increases or decreases, historical actuals, economic factors, wages, interest rates, capital markets, and much more.”

Mulligan suggested engaging these groups with events like Giving Days. 

“The gamification built into Giving Day challenges provides an easy way for ambassadors to raise funds for an initiative, cause, or program they are passionate about on the school’s behalf,” said Mulligan, whose company has organized events like these for institutions that include Cornell University, Vanderbilt University, and many others. “This can be a huge alternate revenue stream to fill the gaps when school enrollment is low. On average, every ambassador advocating for a school’s giving day through peer-to-peer technology brings in four new donors to the school.”

Bouncing back

To recover from the current downturn, the same future planning and scenario analysis is key at a unit-, initiative-, or organization-wide level, Brenton said. “This allows leaders to quantify the potential financial impact of factors like enrollment results, changes in tuition revenue, financial aid costs, and revenues from auxiliaries like housing, athletics, and student fees.”

Mulligan noted donors can further aid financial rebounding in educational institutions, too. One of the education trends from the pandemic — using online platforms — could come in handy to this end. 

“As higher education communities are bouncing back into in-person classes and events, digital engagement can’t be left behind,” Mulligan said. “Investing in effective fundraising technology that works to rally your full community (students, alumni, donors, faculty, etc.) digitally sets up your in-person events for success.”

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