Colleges Lost Nearly Half a Million Student Enrollments This Fall

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After counting college enrollment drops all semester, this week the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its final report of the year.

The official tally: Higher ed enrollments declined 2.5 percent overall in fall 2020. That translates to nearly half a million fewer students attending college than in fall 2019.

The enrollment decline—twice as high as from 2018 to 2019—was driven by drops among undergraduates. Freshman enrollment declined 13.1 percent, and community college enrollment declined 10.1 percent. Meanwhile, graduate enrollment actually increased 3.6 percent.

Student behavior didn’t change evenly. Enrollment fell more among men than women, and that was especially true at community colleges. This gender gap has been observed for several years, but it was exacerbated this fall.

And data the clearinghouse released earlier this month shows that 21.7 percent fewer people went to college immediately after high school this fall, with steeper declines among new graduates of high schools whose student bodies tend to have high poverty levels and low incomes.

“As the fall semester comes to a close, the impact of the pandemic seems to be disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students by keeping them out of college,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, in a statement. “The enrollment gaps appear to be widening because of COVID-19 and the recession.”

There was also a sharper decline in immediate college-going among graduates of urban high schools compared to suburban and rural schools.

The clearinghouse did not provide figures specifically about international students in this report, but data it released in mid-October showed a 13.7 percent undergraduate enrollment decline and 7.6 percent graduate enrollment decline among that group.

Ready for Remote?

Enrollment drops varied by institution type. Community colleges were hurt especially hard, while private, for-profit colleges fared relatively well. These differences may have been driven at least in part by varying levels of institutional readiness to offer remote instruction.

Declines by institution type
Courtesy of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Private, for-profit colleges increased enrollments by 5.3 percent and saw growth in both undergraduate and graduate programs. Experts told EdSurge that these institutions may have been well-positioned for the pandemic since many already offered fully online courses.

Although community colleges typically attract more students during recessions as people seek new skills and credentials to strengthen their chances of getting good jobs, that pattern did not repeat in 2020. One possible reason is that community colleges may not have been able to offer hands-on training—or effective virtual alternatives—in popular workforce-preparation programs.

Another is that neither economists nor employers and workers knew at first whether this year’s pandemic-driven recession was just a momentary dip or the start of a long period of financial and employment trouble.

“Throughout the late spring and early summer, the expectation was that this would be a very brief recession, and all these jobs would bounce back,” Shapiro said during an online forum about the report this week. “Why would you try to make that transition and start a college program if you’re basically expecting your job to come back in a month or two?”



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