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Report Identifies Early Signs of COVID-19 Impact on Enrollment

In the first two months of the pandemic, little changed about student movement in higher education. The share of students who withdrew or shifted between part-time and full-time, compared to previous years, stayed about the same, according to a COVID-19 supplement published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. A view of enrollment data submitted by campuses in April and May 2020 showed minimal impact by COVID-19. However, researchers suggested, "early signs of broader impacts" have begun to surface, including signals of a dramatic reduction in new enrollments.

"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," said Doug Shapiro, executive director for the center, in a statement.

According to the report, "intra-term changes" in enrollment status during spring 2020 were consistent with pre-pandemic years. The percentage of students who increased their enrollment intensity, shifting from part-time to a greater number of classes or full-time, stayed fairly level. In 2018 and 2019, 13 percent changed their status during the term; in 2020 that percentage declined slightly, to 12 percent. Most of that activity occurred in January.

However, the "peak time" for other types of status changes did shift. For example, withdrawal peaks for community college students shifted from March to April (though the overall withdrawal rate remained at pre-pandemic levels). According to the researchers, 10 percent of community college students reduced their enrollment intensity in spring 2020, compared to 6 percent in previous years, and that occurred later in the term — after campus shutdowns.

Reduced enrollment intensity in spring 2020 peaked in April — later than in previous years.

Reduced enrollment intensity in spring 2020 peaked in April — later than in previous years. Source: "A COVID-19 Supplement: With New Data Submitted in April and May 2020" from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

More students also took advantage of generous "approved leaves of absence" policies offered by their colleges and universities. While those accounted for a miniscule 0.026 percent in 2018 and 2019, that doubled to 0.045 percent in 2020, or about 6,400 students. And there were dramatic variations across racial and ethnic lines. According to the report, among African-American and Hispanic students, the increases in approved leaves of absence were 206 percent and 287 percent, respectively; among whites and Asians, it was 70 percent and 59 percent.

Total leave of absence by race and ethnicity, across all types of institutions.

Total leave of absence by race and ethnicity, across all types of institutions. Source: "A COVID-19 Supplement: With New Data Submitted in April and May 2020" from National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

Also, the report stated, new enrollments in April 2020 were far below prior years' April numbers. In 2018 and 2019, about 90,000 new enrollments were reported with start dates in April; in 2020, that count had fallen to 17,000. The precipitous decline seemed to surprise the researchers, who would have expected a surge in enrollment among newly unemployed adults looking to bolster their skill sets for the next hiring spree.

"Although the vast majority of colleges and universities transitioned to online instruction in mid-March, there are no apparent signs that the pandemic has significantly impacted students' enrollment statuses," the researchers stated. But the data also revealed "emergent patterns" — such as the heightened response among African-Americans and Hispanic students taking leaves of absence — that are "likely to accelerate as the pandemic disruptions drag on."

The full report is openly available on the Research Center's website. That also includes an interactive data dashboard that shows the impact of the pandemic on different kinds of institutions, including historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, rural or urban institutions, high transfer or highly vocational community colleges.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.

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