Few Positives in Final Fall Enrollment Numbers

Community colleges saw the largest enrollment declines this fall. Matriculation by first-time freshmen also fell sharply.

December 17, 2020
 
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its final report on fall enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, which includes data from most institutions in the country.

The data haven't changed much throughout the fall semester. Overarching trends, like the decline in community college enrollment, increases in graduate student enrollment and drops in first-time freshmen, have remained consistent since the first report.

The final word is that, over all, college enrollments declined 2.5 percent this fall. This is twice the rate of decline reported in fall 2019. Higher education lost about 400,000 students this fall.

Community college enrollment saw the sharpest declines, and freshman enrollment is down 13.1 percent, about steady with the previous report. Community college enrollment is down 10.1 percent, up from the 9.5 percent decline in the last report. Public colleges over all lost 4 percent of their enrollment, a concerning fact given public institutions enroll seven out of 10 students.

Continuing students are doing well, though, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center.

"Almost all students who enrolled in the spring stayed enrolled this fall," except those who graduated, he said during a webinar for the report.

Most of the decline in first-time students is likely due to the pandemic and the recession, as the number of students graduating high school remained flat from last year, he added.

Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, called the decline in new student enrollment "astonishing."

"Some of this is driven by a decline in international students, but it's clear that a substantial number of Americans who would have normally attended college stayed away this fall," Kelchen said. "The question then becomes whether they enroll after the pandemic ends or whether they decide not to go to college."

This report is a reflection of how the pandemic has exacerbated the struggles that today's students already face, said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

"Those seeing the sharpest of these striking declines in enrollment are community colleges -- the institutions that often serve the largest share of students of color and students from low-income backgrounds," she said in a statement. "While many students may enroll or re-enroll at a later time, we know that delays in enrollment and needing to stop out from higher education can decrease the odds that a student will ultimately earn a degree or credential. We also know that students who need to delay earning a degree or credential must also delay the earnings premium and workforce outcomes associated with educational attainment, both of which could help students and families recover from this crisis and cushion themselves against a future recession."

Policy makers need to remove financial barriers if they want to support students and ensure they can get an education that will lead to a good job, Cooper said.

At community colleges, several majors experienced big drops in enrollment, driving the overall trend in the sector. The hardest-hit programs include precision product, law enforcement and firefighting, and mechanic technology. This is likely due to the fact that these skills are difficult to teach online, Shapiro said.

Another Clearinghouse report shows the number of high school graduates going straight to college decreased by 22 percent this fall, driven mostly by losses of lower-income and urban high school students. This, coupled with the decline in community college enrollment, paints the bleak picture that more vulnerable students are simply not going to college.

"That has serious implications for this generation of students, and also for our national economy," Shapiro said.

It's clear community college students are being affected more than others, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

In response, two-year colleges need to continue funding remote technology for learning and services while preparing for safe, in-person education, she said.

"Marketing and outreach to the impacted populations will be a key need going forward to make sure that students that have been impacted by the pandemic are aware of the opportunities that community colleges offer," she said. "It will be challenging, but community colleges are resilient and ready to get the nation’s students back on the road to completion."

Dual enrollment was also hit hard. These programs have been growing nationally by about 7 percent each year. But this year, their enrollment is flat.

"Dual enrollment has been one of the consistent bright spots for community colleges for years," Shapiro said. The drop is likely due to the challenges high schools faced with the pandemic, including late starts to the term and coordinating classes virtually.

Enrollment at private nonprofit four-year colleges is about flat, mainly due to graduate enrollment.

Graduate enrollment is doing well -- it's up by 3.6 percent over last fall. This isn't too surprising, Kelchen said. These programs may have been online before the pandemic hit, or students eligible for federal student loans may have enrolled during the pandemic to up their skills and increase their employability.

Four-year, for-profit college enrollment is also doing well. It increased by 5.3 percent and was the only sector to have enrollment growth at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

When looking at student demographics, adult student enrollment was hit hard this fall. Enrollment for those over 24 years old fell by about 30 percent. It's likely that childcare or the need to earn a living is driving these students away from college, Kelchen said.

Male enrollment continues to decline, as well. It fell by about 5 percent this year, compared to 0.7 percent drop for female enrollment -- despite women bearing the brunt of the losses in the pandemic.

"It is surprising to see female enrollment being much stronger than male enrollment this fall, although that continues a trend going back several years," Kelchen said. "I expected female enrollment to fall much more than male enrollment because women are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to childcare during the pandemic."

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