Students walk around campus at Reed College on a Monday afternoon. Reed is one of a number of colleges on the West Coast that have recently started their fall semesters, some with major enrollment issues. Photo by Luke Ramsey.

Amidst a recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of schools have experienced issues regarding enrollment, from overcrowding to heavy withdrawals. The pandemic led to more than a year of online learning in much of the country, financial volatility in many households, and fluctuating housing needs at many campuses. These factors have led to issues for colleges like those in California’s UC system, such as UC Berkeley, which has been struggling to develop housing for a wave of new students, and the University of Portland, where withdrawals led to financial losses for the school.

At the University of Portland (UP), a record number of students withdrew their applications from the school, sending its admissions and enrollment systems into flux. In an average year before the pandemic, around 7 percent of students who put money down to attend UP do not end up attending the university, according to The Oregonian. In 2022, roughly 21 percent withdrew their enrollment. This unprecedented withdrawal rate cost the school an estimated $8.9 million.

UP is an anomaly in this enrollment cycle, as other private schools in the state have not experienced such struggles, according to Brent Wilder, president of the Oregon Alliance of Independent Colleges and Universities, in an interview with The Oregonian. Financial issues were a major cause of the heavy influx of withdrawals, with 82 percent of students citing them as a major cause. While the school experienced its own monetary problems as a result of these heavy withdrawals, students themselves have struggled under the weight of rising college costs.

Undergraduate tuition at UP is in excess of $50,000 per year, according to the UP website. Although financial aid is available, college prices often leave families unable to pay and regularly serves as a barrier for students, limiting their options after high school. Prices roughly doubled, adjusted for inflation, at both public and private nonprofit four-year colleges in the thirty years between the 1991-92 and 2021-22 school years, according to CNBC. 

Before a recent bill forgave up to $20,000 in debt for Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 for former college students currently making under $125,000 per year, according to a White House press statement, the nation’s collective student loan debt had passed $1.7 trillion. A 2020 study by Moody’s Investor Services found that 49 percent of people whose repayment obligations began between 2010 and 2012 had not made any progress toward repaying their debts.

The schools within the University of California (UC) system have been grappling with a rise in applications, and due to an inability to develop housing, some schools have been unable to provide the space their growing student bodies need. At UC Berkeley, an attempt by the university to build dense housing over a park of cultural significance has led to conflict, students losing their spots at the school, and a community unsure of whether it can preserve a symbol of its rich countercultural history.

In the late 1960s, much of a neighborhood in Berkeley, California, was seized by eminent domain as part of a nationwide urban renewal movement that uprooted cities in the name of accommodating car traffic, often at the expense of marginalized communities. In response, a group of protestors converted a small lot in the area into a public park, which they named People’s Park, as part of a greater countercultural student movement on the UC Berkeley campus. While the university originally accommodated its People’s Park protests, then-Governor Ronald Reagan sent law enforcement officers, including many who had recently returned from the Vietnam War, to crack down on the activity. This led to the fatal shooting of one student in a conflict referred to in Berkeley as Bloody Thursday. After the long conflict, the lot was converted into People’s Parkand remained intact for decades.

On Aug. 3 of this year, the university paused construction of an apartment complex on the park lot with a capacity of roughly 1,100 students, according to NBC. In the spring, the college was forced to forgo the acceptance of more than 5,000 applications when the community organization Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods successfully argued that the introduction of new development and more students would have adverse environmental impacts. The school had been increasing its enrollment with the rise of applications, but the decision blocked further expansion.

“UC Berkeley students themselves have repeatedly said that UC should stop increasing enrollment until it can provide housing for its students,” said Phil Bokovoy, president of Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, in an interview with the Guardian, after the organization blocked the new development. “We are all very concerned that UC Berkeley will create a housing crisis next fall.”

Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods has also suggested that UC Berkeley adjust its admissions standards to admit more in-state students and fewer out-of-state and international students, preventing overcrowding. The current method at schools such as UC Irvine does not involve prioritizing in-state students, though admissions requirements are somewhat higher for those applying from outside of California. The out-of-state minimum GPA for admission at UC Irvine is 3.4, while the in-state minimum is 3.0, according to the school’s website.

Without the capacity to expand enrollment, schools like Berkeley will be unable to match rising numbers of applications, as has been the case throughout the UC system in recent years. This could lead to higher rejection rates, as the number of applications increases more quickly than the number of people accepted.

Elsewhere within the UC system, accommodating new students has been much easier. UC Irvine has been able to match its demand for space over time, according to Huma A. Madinawala, an Associate Director of First-Year Outreach at UC Irvine. The supply of housing was somewhat disrupted, but it has remained stable enough to accommodate transfers and new students.

The pandemic has also led to numerous changes to the application system and standards. Hundreds of schools converted to systems in which submitting SAT and ACT scores was optional, a departure from a status quo that ensured the primacy of test scores in evaluating students’ aptitude, and the Class of 2023 is still unlikely to be required to submit scores to almost any college, though some schools may revert to the test-required system for the Class of 2024. The transition to online learning during 2020 and 2021 made accessing support and participating in extracurricular activities much more difficult for students than in other years, and the upcoming Class of 2023 missed many opportunities during their freshman and sophomore years as a result. However, holistic evaluation methods have increased the value of extracurricular performance and other activities that were once deemed secondary to the supremacy of the standardized test.

In spite of—or because of—the move to more and more online resources within the educational system, students lack key information about the schools they want to apply to. Students experience heavy pressure and light guidance as they select and apply to colleges. “Sometimes when the [college application] process is really overwhelming,” says Madinawala, “people look to the internet and different threads and things like that,” where the information is less reliable, instead of more trustworthy sources such as college websites.

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