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Just 15 Percent of Undergraduates ‘Extremely Unlikely’ to Enroll in Online Fall Semester, Per Harvard Open Data Project Survey

On most days during the school year, Harvard Yard is bustling with students and tourists, rendering it quite challenging to avoid coming with six feet of another person.
On most days during the school year, Harvard Yard is bustling with students and tourists, rendering it quite challenging to avoid coming with six feet of another person. By Allison G. Lee
By Juliet E. Isselbacher and Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writers

Seventy percent of Harvard students are at least somewhat likely to enroll for the fall semester, while 15 percent are extremely unlikely to stay on, the Harvard Open Data Project found in a survey published Sunday.

HODP, a student-faculty research collaborative, began surveying undergraduates last week, a day after Harvard released its decision to bring only freshmen and select upperclassmen back to campus for the coming semester and to conduct all classes online. Over a four-day window, the group collected 1766 student responses, representing just above one quarter of the undergraduate student body, including incoming freshmen. The survey was HODP’s most popular project ever, according to the report.

Sahana Srinivasan ’22, who co-authored the study, said she and her colleagues hoped the results would empower students making decisions about whether to enroll this fall by giving them a sense of where their peers stood.

“We've been hearing a lot of people say that what they were doing was contingent on what everyone else was doing,” Srinivasan, a former Crimson News editor, said.

In the months spent anticipating Monday’s announcement about the fall, many undergraduates said they would prefer to take a leave of absence rather than complete a full semester of classes online.

HODP found, however, that the majority of respondents, 74 percent, were at least somewhat likely to enroll for the fall, while a sizable minority, 15 percent of respondents, indicated that they were extremely unlikely to return. However, because their sample had considerably more incoming freshmen than respondents from any other class year, HODP wrote that they re-weighted the responses based on how many students are actually in each class year.

Kevin L. Bi ’21, who co-authored the study, said while he believes the data should be “reasonably representative” of final fall enrollment numbers, he said more students may ultimately enroll than the study indicates.

“I suspect it might be a little bit hard to take time off if people find that alternative opportunities aren't there,” Bi said. “There might be some kind of bandwagon effect where more people realize, ‘Oh, more people than we thought were going back. Maybe we should go back’ or the inverse.”

Sixty-five percent of respondents indicated they would try to find an internship or some type of industry work to fill their time off, the survey reported.

The report found that freshmen — the only cohort guaranteed housing on campus — are significantly more likely to enroll than upperclassmen. Seniors, who Harvard will prioritize for housing in the spring, expressed the next highest level of enthusiasm.

Freshmen and seniors also reported the highest approval ratings of Harvard’s plans for the fall term, averaging approval ratings of 5.85 and 5.08, respectively, out of 10.

HODP reported that most respondents felt Harvard planned to house too few students. Even among those upperclassmen who agreed with the volume of students allowed to return, a sizable number thought Harvard should have chosen a different cohort to live in residence in the fall. Several upperclassmen said the same in interviews with The Crimson, arguing that Harvard should have prioritized seniors so that they can fully benefit from their final year on campus.

Srinivasan said the team found other generative comparisons beyond class year.

International students reported being less likely to enroll, a statistic the HODP team speculated might be related to closed borders and time zone complications.

Hours after Harvard announced Monday morning that all its courses will be virtual, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement released an order prohibiting international students enrolled in universities offering only online courses from staying in the United States. Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have since challenged the rule in a lawsuit filed in District Court in Boston.

While HODP did not ask survey-takers about the ICE order, many international students told The Crimson last week that the new federal guidelines would jeopardize their ability to remain in or return to the U.S. to continue their studies.

By contrast, Srinivasan said students on financial aid reported being more likely to enroll. Some low-income students have said they would not be able to afford independent accommodations if they took a leave and failed to secure campus housing upon their return.

Though administrators have assured students that Harvard will not alter its leave of absence policies to deter leaves, the College cannot necessarily guarantee students housing when they re-enroll under existing rules.

Srinivasan said that the group is drafting a note to College leaders with the results, and that they hope administrators will use the data to assess how well they are meeting student needs.

But in the end, she said, HODP launched the survey to help students make an informed decision about their own plans.

“I hope this serves as sort of an all-encapsulating answer-snapshot of what people are thinking now,” she said. “We hoped that this would just help students get an answer on that, if they want it to factor into their decision.”

—Staff writer Juliet E. Isselbacher can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @julietissel.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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