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Widespread disruption to the spring semester did not result in an unusually large number of students changing their enrollment status, according to new research by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Most students maintained the same enrollment intensity -- meaning whether they studied full-time, three-quarters-time, half-time or less than half-time -- from the beginning of the semester to the end, regardless of their demographic characteristics or the type of institution they attended.

Even after many colleges sent students home to continue their studies remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of students withdrawing, or increasing/decreasing their course load, remained consistent with recent years, the data suggest.

“Little or no change in enrollment status is a reassuring sign that most college students were able to stay on course during the first two months of the pandemic,” Doug Shapiro, the center's executive director, said in a news release.

“However, there were early signs of broader impacts that are underway,” said Shapiro. “Data reveals the emergence of small but concerning racial and ethnic patterns, as more students took leaves of absence than in previous years, particularly African Americans and Hispanics.”

Leaves of absence, where students are not required to attend classes for an agreed period of time, are generally rare in higher ed, said Shapiro. While the total number of students taking these leaves remains relatively small, the data showed a marked increase compared to last year, particularly in March and April.

In the spring terms of 2018 and 2019, 0.026 percent of all enrolled students took leaves of absence. That number almost doubled to 0.045 percent this year -- a total of around 6,400 students. The spike was not evenly distributed across racial and ethnic lines. Leaves of absence among African American and Hispanic students increased almost sixfold this year compared to last year.

The data on student leaves of absence are preliminary but reveal a worrying trend, said Shapiro. Only around 600 institutions have so far reported this data. It is possible that the true number of students taking leaves of absence may be higher than reported. The center intends to monitor this trend as more information becomes available, said Shapiro.

A surprising development in the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center data was that new enrollments in April 2020 were far below the norm in previous years, said Shapiro. In 2018 and 2019, approximately 90,000 new enrollments were reported with a start date in April. In 2020, this number dropped down to 17,000. As in pre-pandemic years, students who enrolled in the spring largely are undergraduates at primarily online institutions that enroll year-round, or colleges with quarterly calendars.

“Following the massive layoffs announced in March, newly unemployed adults may have been expected to flock to for-profit institutions with flexible or monthly terms, such as primarily online students,” said the report. “However, across all institutions, even at primarily online institutions, there was no sign of significant new enrollment growth during the course of the spring term in 2020. Rather, data shows far fewer new enrollments reported in April 2020 than in April of previous years.”

It's too early to say whether this enrollment slump will continue over the summer and into the fall, according to Shapiro. Over the coming months, the center plans to continue reporting enrollment data in real time, but it may be several months before a full picture of the impact of the pandemic on higher education enrollment emerges, he said.

“This is the first time we’ve seen a big snapshot of what may have happened in the spring term,” said MorraLea Keller, director of technical assistance at the National College Attainment Network, on the new report. “Everybody in our line of work will be thrilled to see that withdrawal and enrollment patterns stayed consistent for the majority of students. Hopefully, that means that students were able to successfully finish their terms.”

While the clearinghouse's data paint a picture of enrollment trends, they don’t show whether student academic performance suffered as a result of the pandemic and the switch to remote learning, said Keller. It is possible that some students benefited from instructors introducing pass-fail grading in what was, and continues to be, a very difficult time for students impacted by COVID-19.

For students changing their enrollment status from full-time to part-time, the U.S. Department of Education has introduced some flexibility so that students can maintain their eligibility for financial aid, even if their satisfactory academic progress standards change, said Keller.

The department has, however, barred undocumented students from receiving funds from the $2.2 trillion CARES Act stimulus package, said Tiffany Jones, senior director of higher education policy at the Education Trust. Dozens of education groups, including the Education Trust, have called on Congress to invest another $50 billion in stabilization funds for higher ed. Federal funding is especially important as state budget cuts threaten vital initiatives supporting low-income students, such as the City University of New York's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, said Jones. 

In the spring semester, most students were able to cross the finish line because their bills were already paid, said Jones. It may become more difficult for students of color to continue their education in the coming months, she said. Black and Latino students are more likely to have family members and friends who have died because of COVID-19. As a result, they may be more likely to face economic hardships. They are also more likely to live in households with no broadband internet access, she said.  

“Before COVID ever happened, Black and Latino students were less likely to complete college than their white peers,” said Jones. “This spring there was a lot of disruption to learning, and all students have been challenged by that. But this is a public health crisis that hit Black and Latino communities harder than white communities. So while the data may only show a slight negative impact now, we should anticipate worse news for the fall.”

Keller shares similar concerns for the fall semester. “If the fall enrollment report looks like the spring report, we will all be turning cartwheels. A lot of colleges are still finalizing plans for the fall semester, and that will have an impact on new and returning students.”

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