Who showed up last fall? That's the question the College Board attempted to answer with a new report on enrollment -- new and continuing -- of students.
The College Board used its own data and those of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center to create a sample of nearly 10 million students who represent about 80 percent of all U.S. high school graduates in the last three years. The students attended more than 22,000 U.S. high schools and 2,800 U.S. colleges, resulting in a nationally representative data set for understanding the impact of COVID-19 on college enrollment and retention among recent high school graduates. (The report does not include adult students.)
Some of the results confirm past reports on the coronavirus. "Student enrollment rates declined more substantially at two-year colleges than four-year colleges. The largest shifts in student enrollment rates occurred within the two-year sector, where regression-adjusted enrollment rates declined by nearly 12 percent because of the pandemic, and stand in stark contrast to the smaller 4.5 percent and 2.8 percent enrollment rate declines in the private and public four-year sectors, respectively," said the College Board report.
The report sought to look at who was going. "Among students in the two-year sector, the pandemic most adversely affected the college trajectories of first-generation, underrepresented minority, and lower-achieving students from higher-poverty communities and high schools," the report said. "The enrollment story for the class of 2020 is quite different among students in the four-year sector, where some of the largest enrollment rate declines occurred among white and Asian students, students with college-educated parents and strong academic achievement from more affluent communities and high schools."
That is because, the report says, "students with higher high school grades may have made room [for extra spots] at four-year colleges for students with lower high school grades. Students with the strongest academic credentials (i.e., high school GPAs of A and A+) experienced the largest enrollment rate declines in the four-year college sector. Their 4 percent-7 percent enrollment rate declines at modestly selective four-year colleges were offset by similar increases in the enrollment rates of students with somewhat weaker academic credentials (i.e., B- and lower students)."
Jessica Howell, vice president of research at the College Board, said that these students might have opted not to go to college for several reasons. More of them may have taken gap years, she said. In addition, this is consistent with reports of leading colleges turning to their waiting lists more than in past years.
This graphic below from the report shows the full extent of students with high grades having an impact on who enrolled. Most of the impact is in moderately competitive colleges (in admissions).
With regard to retention, the report found more damage at community colleges that at four-year colleges (for retention of first-year students). In fact, the retention rates at four-year colleges were not very different from before.
"Retention rates at public two-year colleges decreased by 4.9 percent due to the pandemic, while retention rates increased by 1.4 percent in public four-year colleges and fell by 1.2 percent in the private nonprofit four-year sector."
Howell noted that the retention rate decline was less than half the decline experienced by community colleges in new student enrollment.
The report also examined state data.
"There exists substantial state and regional variation in the impact of the pandemic on student enrollment and retention rates, although that variation does not appear to be closely linked to local health and economic conditions," the report said. "Four-year college enrollment rates decreased by more than 10 percent among students in 9 states and yet increased among students in 11 states."
Some of these changes are sizable. In Georgia, 8.2 percent more freshmen enrolled at four-year colleges in the last year than the previous (pre-pandemic) year. There was an 11.1 percent increase at Alabama's four-year colleges, and 9.2 percent for Nevada.
The states doing the worst in this category were in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest. Enrollment of freshmen at four-year colleges fell by 20.6 percent in Idaho, by 16.9 percent in Oregon, by 13 percent in Washington State, by 15.1 percent in Montana, by 16.6 percent in Minnesota and by more than 12 percent in Illinois and Wisconsin.
The report also identifies another important shift.
"The combined health and economic crises disrupted the long-standing countercyclical relationship between college enrollment and economic growth," the report said. "Research identifies a long-standing countercyclical pattern in college enrollment, where worsening labor market opportunities during economic downturns spur increases in college enrollment as workers invest in new skills and ride out the recession labor market. The relatively lower tuition in the public two-year sector means that it is frequently community colleges that experience the largest increases in enrollment during recessions. In contrast to all prior analyses of recessions, we document enrollment rate decreases in the public two-year sector after the start of the recession for every subgroup examined with the exception of a handful of states and regions. Although surveys of the class of 2020 reflected a strong preference for more affordable college option, the historically affordable public two-year sector experienced the most substantial declines in enrollment and retention rates."
The report also documents the enrollment losses by race and ethnicity. Most of the lost enrollment (and most of the lost minority enrollment) is at community colleges.
Howell stressed that it is important to remember that these are last year's data -- the data from a group of students whose education (in high school) was only seriously disrupted at the very end of high school. Their searches for colleges also were largely during the period when travel was possible.
And what to expect for this fall? "Your guess is as good as mine," she said.