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Editor's note: The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released updated data in March 2021 showing that its Dec.10 data release significantly overstated declines in college enrollment counts that are described in the text below. Additional information is available here. Inside Higher Ed's coverage of a March 2021 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report on fall enrollment is available here.

The COVID-19 pandemic doesn't seem to have affected high school graduation rates. But it appears to have impacted how many of those graduates went straight to college.

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show that nearly 22 percent fewer students from the Class of 2020 went to college immediately after high school this fall compared to the Class of 2019, according to a news release from the center. The overall immediate college enrollment rate fell from 35.3 percent to 27.7 percent, a drop that is 10 times greater than the decline between 2018 and 2019.

The data are preliminary and estimate immediate enrollment rates from more than 2,300 high schools reporting as of Sept. 18.

“Based on preliminary data, there is little evidence that COVID-19 impacted high school graduation,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the center, in the release. “However, the pandemic impacted high school graduates in their immediate college enrollment, and those from high poverty, low income, and urban high schools have been hit the hardest. The enrollment gaps appear to be widening because of COVID-19.”

Students who are low income or from an underrepresented minority group seem to be most impacted, the report states. Graduates of low-income high schools saw a nearly 30 percent drop in college enrollment, compared to a 17 percent drop for those at high-income high schools. High schools with larger minority populations saw a 26.4 percent drop in college enrollment, compared to 18 percent for high schools with low minority populations. Declines were also greater for urban high schools, which saw a 25 percent drop compared to a 19.8 percent drop at suburban high schools and an 18.1 percent drop at rural high schools.

Equity gaps also emerge in who is going where. Low-income high school graduates' enrollments at public four-year colleges declined by 20.5 percent, compared to a 10.7 percent decline for higher-income high schools. Higher-income high school graduates had relatively larger enrollment drops in private four-year colleges compared to public colleges.