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Fall 2020 Undergrad Enrollment Worse than Expected; Slips by 4%

Undergraduate enrollment changes by type of institution

Undergraduate enrollment changes by type of institution. Source: "Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information," from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Now that there's more data to analyze, the college enrollment news is even worse than projected. About a month into the fall 2020 semester, undergraduate enrollment is now running 4 percent below last year's level. Overall, postsecondary enrollment was down by 3 percent, as of Sept. 24, 2020. Just a few weeks ago, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center had issued a first-look snapshot of enrollment based on reporting from 22 percent of colleges and universities. The newest report uses data from about 54 percent of reporting institutions.

Public two-year schools have taken the biggest hit for fall 2020. Enrollment in that sector is down by 9.4 percent, compared to a decline of 1.1 percent in fall 2019. Public four-year schools are down 1.4 percent, compared to a drop of 0.8 percent at this time last year. And private nonprofits have shrunk by 2 percent, slightly smaller shrinkage than 2019's 2.1 percent.

As the NSC noted, first-time beginning students generated the biggest shrinkage of any group from last fall (-16.1 percent), accounting for more than two-thirds of all enrollment losses (69 percent) at the undergraduate level. Community colleges specifically lost nearly 23 percent of first-timers, versus 1.4 percent growth the previous year. Among the first-time students 18 to 24, the traditional college age, enrollment fell by 14.5 percent.

Although private for-profits had also declined in the reporting issued in early September, now, they're up by 3 percent.

Also on the decline were undergraduate certificate and associate degree enrollments. Both fell dramatically, by 8.9 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively. Countering that, post-college certificates saw uplift, with 7.4 percent growth.

Graduate enrollment is doing better compared to 2019. Private for-profits have grown by 9.3 percent, while public four-year schools are up by 4 percent. As an exception, private nonprofits dropped by a tenth of a percent. Among the 20 schools defined as "primarily online institutions," POIs saw a leap of 26 percent in graduate programs compared to a 4 percent rise last year.

Graduate enrollment changes by type of institution

Graduate enrollment changes by type of institution. Source: "Stay Informed with the Latest Enrollment Information," from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

The analysis also uncovered these findings:

  • Male enrollment this fall declined at three times the rate of female enrollment (-6.4 percent compared to -2.2 percent). For adult learners, the gender gap was even higher — about four times.
  • Community college enrollment for Black and Hispanic students experienced double-digit declines this fall. Enrollment for Black men shrank by 20.6 percent compared to 10.1 percent for Black women, generating an overall decline in enrollment of 14.2 percent. Enrollment for Hispanic students was down by 12.7 percent, 18.8 percent for Hispanic men and 7.8 percent for Hispanic women.
  • POIs have seen "notable" growth in part-time students. They now make up nearly 41 percent of POI undergraduate students, up from 37.5 percent last year; and 20.1 percent of POI graduate enrollment versus 18.6 percent in 2019.

The next NSC update is scheduled to be released Nov. 12.

The full report is openly available on the NSC Research Center website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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