Out of an abundance of caution amidst the pandemic, many colleges opted for online or hybrid instruction this academic year. This decision posed challenges for both enrollment offices at colleges across America and for countless incoming freshmen, whose decisions to attend university were thrown into question.
A report from the National Student House Clearing Center noted that college enrollment declined 2.5 percent across the country this fall, twice the rate of decline in 2019. Of the students who decided either to not arrive or not to return to campus, 55% of them cited changes in class format as the main reason for their decision, according to a study conducted by Brooking’s Institute.
Lehigh Valley colleges were no exception to these trends.
According to Vice President of Enrollment Management Greg MacDonald, the class of 2024 at Lafayette enrolled about 100 fewer students compared to the previous year’s class. Notably, about 30 students from the class of 2024 postponed their matriculation until spring 2021, and approximately another 50 students who deferred enrollment are expected to join campus next fall.
The only other school in the Lehigh Valley besides Lafayette which held completely online instruction for fall 2020 was East Stroudsburg University. Other local colleges which implemented some form of hybrid learning faced challenges with their implementation as well.
Lehigh adopted a hybrid approach–bringing first-year students onto campus while offering mostly online classes for the fall semester–but nevertheless saw an increased number of deferrals. According to Director of Admissions Bruce Bunnick, Lehigh approved 50 gap year experiences as a result of the pandemic compared to the ten to fifteen which normally occur in a single year.
While the decision to hold online classes offers the opportunity for flexibility, it often proves particular challenges for traditionally underrepresented populations. The Public Policy Institute of California, for example, found that students of color and nontraditional students are more likely to have challenges that put them at risk of lowered performance in an online setting.
The Posse program at Lafayette, which expands the application pool to students with more diverse backgrounds, was nevertheless able to operate smoothly despite the pandemic.
Dean of Advising and Co-Curricular Programs Michael Olin noted that all of the incoming Posse scholars enrolled at Lafayette despite the college’s decision to hold online classes this fall.
“The Class of 2024 Posse Scholars faced a similar challenge to many first-year students around the country in that they had to begin their college careers in the midst of a global pandemic, and their first-semester experience was primarily remote in nature,” he wrote in an email.
For many, online learning in the fall posed challenges to learning.
“It was hard for me to have a quiet space that I could also work in. Virtual school was generally hard for me because I’m not someone who can do work in my room in the same place where I live and sleep and eat,” Heavenly Anderson ’24 said.
Incoming scholars often considered waiting a year before enrolling at the college in light of these circumstances.
“I know a lot of people who deferred a semester. I know someone who just deferred an entire year and got a job when they were at home. If it wasn’t for Posse I think I would have thought a lot more about deferring,” Jordan Shaibani ‘24 said.
Nevertheless, students seemed to have found the silver lining amid their online semester and cherish the opportunity to return to campus, noting that the social net offered by Posse is incredibly helpful.
“I had a really great time being at home for the first semester. I have a lot of siblings–my older sister who was in college came home too–so we were all at home. We got to hang out all the time and it had been such a long time since we’d all been together, so it was nice,” Shaibani said.
“Because I am not on campus, there are things that I don’t know. I’m not super worried about getting caught up because I know that I can lean on people in Posse to tell me about campus,” she added.
“It’s been really nice to have that social connection. I didn’t talk to as many people as I wanted to at home, so it’s easier for me here to say ‘hi’ to people and have that type of connection. In-person classes have been really exciting,” Anderson noted.