Typically, there are approximately 20 to 30 students who defer their enrollment to Ithaca College and 100 to 105 returning students who take leaves of absence in any given year. This year, 391 returning students decided to take leaves of absence for the semester — approximately four times the usual number — and 143 freshmen and transfer students have deferred their enrollment for Fall 2020. This raises the question: What will the college do to make sure they come back?
Nationwide, current undergraduate enrollment is down 2.5% from 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At private, nonprofit, four-year colleges like Ithaca College, the average enrollment decreased by 3.8%. However, at public, four-year colleges, where tuition is thousands of dollars cheaper than Ithaca College, there was only a 0.4% enrollment decrease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the reality that paying over $46,000 in a year for an education is not worth it for many students. The high cost of the college is something that the campus community has been concerned about for years, but the benefits of hands-on experiences and experiential learning opportunities made tuition seem like an unfortunate compromise that students had to accept. Now that those positives are stripped away, students are left to reevaluate what they want out of their education. Before the college transitioned to remote learning for Fall 2020, it sent out a survey in August for students to determine how likely they were to enroll at the college if it had to hold virtual classes. According to the survey, hands-on experiential learning was the top priority for students for the coming academic year. With that in mind, traveling the country or volunteering seems to be just as good, if not better, of a use of time, rather than sitting in front of a screen all day. If Spring 2021 ends up being online as well, the number of students taking leaves might be even higher.
Overall enrollment at the college has decreased from 6,266 students in Fall 2019 to 5,354 students in Fall 2020. The administration has stated that the decline is in line with Ithaca Forever, the college’s strategic plan. Goal number three states that the college wants to “investigate opportunities for consolidation or reorganization of programs or schools for material savings and concentration of program strength.” However, this recalibration was supposed to be a deliberate process over the course of five years. The college wants to reduce programs that are not performing well, which makes sense moving forward. However, losing students randomly is not the same as this intentional plan. In public forums, at least, the college is not addressing the reality that this lower enrollment is because of a perfect storm — the COVID-19 pandemic, regional downward trends of enrollment in Northeast colleges and Ithaca College’s continuously increasing tuition, just to name a few. Framing the decrease in enrollment as beneficial to the college is disingenuous and ignores the other issues at hand.
There can be no Ithaca College without students. Clear messaging is key in order to retain a student body and ensure that students keep coming back.