Report: Enrollment Continues to Trend Downward

Several concerning enrollment trends are holding strong as the latest, and more comprehensive, data show. Experts and advocates are particularly worried about community colleges.

October 15, 2020
 
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The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has bad news. Again.

Its latest fall 2020 enrollment report continues to show downward trajectories nearly across the board in higher education. As of Sept. 24, undergraduate enrollment is now 4 percent lower than it was last fall -- a 1.5-percentage-point decrease from earlier this semester.

This latest report includes data from more colleges. It's based on reporting from about 54 percent of postsecondary institutions, or data for 9.2 million students, compared to 22 percent of institutions earlier this fall. The next update is scheduled for Nov. 12.

The largest declines of all are in first-year students. Just over 16 percent fewer freshmen have enrolled this fall compared to last year. Graduate enrollment was trending upward earlier. While it's still an increase over last year, that gain has slipped by 1.3 percentage points.

New Data on 2019 Graduate Enrollment

First-time graduate program enrollment grew by 2.5 percent between fall 2018 and 2019, according to a survey released yesterday that provides details on who, exactly, enrolled in greater numbers.

Read the full story here.

"For the most part, things are worse by almost half," said Douglas Shapiro, executive director of the clearinghouse. "But we really don’t have a way to know whether that is likely to continue."

Somewhat surprisingly, public and private nonprofit four-year institutions are doing relatively well, he said during a webinar presenting the report.

Compared to expectations for those colleges, they are in "fairly good shape, all things considered," he said. Undergraduate enrollment is down 1.4 percent at public four-years and 2 percent at private nonprofits.

On the flipside, things are much worse at community colleges. Typically, community colleges get a boost in enrollment during a recession as unemployed people seek to improve their skills. Many thought they'd get an even bigger boost this time around from students transferring out of four-year colleges to save money and stay close to home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and pivots to remote learning.

These predictions aren't playing out.

Community college enrollment has dropped 9.4 percent -- nearly nine times its loss rate between 2018 and 2019. When compared with the sector's expectations, these data are "even more worrisome," Shapiro said. Enrollment in certificate and associate degree programs, which are mostly offered at two-year colleges, is also down.

Community colleges are also seeing a nearly 23 percent enrollment drop for first-time students. This was particularly distressing because two-year colleges were one of the few bright spots for first-time students in the fall of 2019, he said.

It's hard to say whether that decline will continue. But it's possible, Shapiro said, because the students that community colleges serve are most likely to face challenges with access to technology, making online learning difficult. It's also hard to translate vocational programs to remote formats.

The decline equates to more than 600,000 students not enrolling at community colleges, according to Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.

"We are hearing from several sources that community college students are looking for in-person learning," Bumphus said in an email. "The disruption of in-person learning to remote was absolutely necessary but the enrollment figures show us that it is not a good long-term solution for many students. Because of the decline in enrollment as well as the economic impact of the pandemic, community colleges are potentially facing steep cuts to their funding allocations at a time when they need more support than ever. More importantly, hundreds of thousands of students are not getting the education they need to advance to higher level degrees and jobs.”

Shapiro thinks people should be worried about this trend.

​"These declines are so large and so fast, and they’re so concentrated on first-year students who may never make it back," he said. "​If there’s not a sudden rebound where they all come back in the spring -- I don’t see that happening -- I think many of these students will never make it back."

That could have large implications.

"Community colleges are a huge part of access for higher ed, in general, for disadvantaged students," he said. "I think it’s especially troubling that we risk an increasingly more inequitable society if we don’t address these gaps in access. And do so quickly."

Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a member organization advocating to improve community college student success, is also worried. But she also sees some promising signs.

"College presidents are saying their retention numbers are strong," Stout said. "They’re seeing this deepening of learner continuity."

Many colleges doubled down on retention in the spring, which may have taken away from their efforts to enroll more first-time students.

But some have been successful on both ends, Stout said. The Community College of Baltimore County strategically deployed financial aid and federal CARES Act funds to eliminate financial barriers for new students, and it hasn't seen an enrollment dip. Durham Technical Community College blended credit and noncredit offerings so students could use short-term programs as an entry point to the college, and its enrollment is flat. And Odessa College has started offering eight-week sessions for students, avoiding any enrollment drops in the process.

"I don't think it's a lost cause," Stout said.

It's possible that the next report could show improvements for community colleges, she said, as many have been holding eight-week semesters due to the pandemic. Fourteen-week semesters will likely become less common by the time COVID-19 subsides, she predicts.

​The one exception to all this decline is for-profit four-year colleges. Their enrollment is up 3 percent over last fall. The data do contain information from for-profit companies that have closed some campuses over the year, but not those that have shut whole companies down, Shapiro said. Historically, these colleges were in free fall pre-pandemic, he said, making this increase even more notable.

It's likely the sector could make a rebound once again.

"They were the first to benefit from the last recession," he said. "I think they are quicker to pick up displaced workers."

Another surprise is the disparity among different racial and ethnic groups, Shapiro said.

"We expected to see steeper declines among Black, Native American and Hispanic students," he said, due to the disproportionate effects of the public health crisis and the recession on minority groups.

Instead, white student enrollment is declining nearly as much as Black student enrollment. And white graduate student enrollment is lagging behind Black graduate student enrollment.

Historically Black colleges and universities are largely tracking trends for undergraduates over all, though private nonprofit HBCUs are seeing larger enrollment drops and public two-year HBCUs are seeing smaller drops, the report said.

Hispanic students are doing relatively better than all the other races and ethnicities included in the report.

A caveat is that the center does not have as much data on races and ethnicities as it does for overall data, so these numbers are likely more variable, according to Shapiro.

Stout credits colleges' retention work for avoiding steep gaps. But, she noted, the gaps still exist.

Colleges are going to have to invest in a student success agenda to close these gaps, she said. That will be hard work and will include restructuring how programs are created, how they're designed and how quickly students can enter and complete programs.

While overall disparities aren't huge, Shapiro noted in an interview that they get larger for community colleges and men. Black student enrollment at community colleges is down 14 percent, compared to 11 percent for white students.

The decline for Black men at these colleges is 21 percent -- double the rate for Black women, he said. Enrollment for white men is also down compared to white women, but to a lesser degree.

"We don't really know why that is," he said.

Institutional and policy leaders need to examine why these disparities are so glaring for this sector, said Eric Felix, assistant professor of postsecondary educational leadership at San Diego State University.

​"I’m really concerned about the disparities in who’s enrolling and who’s able to retain and persist in the two-year sector, given that students in those colleges are more likely to face other inequities," Felix said.

But community colleges are in a difficult place to enact change, he said. Without more federal resources, it will be hard for them to target these issues.

"The lack of federal action in providing a social safety net requires students to prioritize either learning or an economic livelihood," he said.

He hopes these data will encourage federal policy makers to step in and help all of higher education, but especially two-year colleges.

​Institutions that were primarily online before the pandemic are also doing well. At colleges where more than 90 percent of students took courses solely online pre-pandemic, enrollments are growing for both undergraduate (6.8 percent) and graduate students (7.2 percent).

Enrollment for students age 25 or older at these colleges increased by 5.5 percent so far this fall, though that population is still in an overall enrollment decline. This follows a 6.3 percent decline last year.

No sector gained enrollment from students age 18 to 20, Shapiro said. Only for-profit colleges gained at all among age groups, mostly with students age 25 or over.

The report also had sufficient data to examine enrollment in 47 states. It found that the Northeast is doing the best, with an enrollment drop of only 3.4 percent, while the Midwest is doing the worst, with a drop of 5.7 percent. About half the states' enrollments dropped more than the national average of 4 percent, with Rhode Island seeing a 15.8 percent decline -- the largest of all.

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