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Undergraduate Enrollments Take Another Dip for Fall

Fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment changes by type of institution

Fall 2020 undergraduate enrollment changes by type of institution. Source: "First Look Fall 2020 Enrollment" from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

According to a preliminary study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall enrollments across the United States are running 2.5 percent below last year's level (compared to a 1.7 percent drop in fall 2019 from the previous year). Community colleges are hurting the most; they've lost about 7.5 percent of students. Four-year private nonprofits are down 3.8 percent.

The first-look snapshot was based on reporting from 22 percent of colleges, as of Sept 10, 2020.

Institutions that are primarily online (defined by the Clearinghouse as schools where more than nine in 10 students enroll exclusively online, even before the pandemic) saw a 5.6 percent decline among undergraduate students attending full-time, and a 3.6 percent jump by students attending part-time. For graduate students it was just the opposite: Full-timers increased by 4.4 percent and part-timers decreased by 3.9 percent.

Undergraduate enrollment by campus setting saw positive blips year-over-year in four categories: private-for-profits in town and rural settings (5 percent and 2.4 percent, respectively), public four-years in city settings (half a percent) and private nonprofits in rural settings (a third of a percent). The most dramatic slide occurred in four-year private-for-profits in suburban settings, which shrank by 31 percent.

International enrollments were down 11 percent. Decreases also hit specific sub-groups: American Indian and Native Alaskan student enrollment shrank by 8 percent, and 6 percent fewer White students and Black students enrolled.

By credential type, post-college certificates saw big pickup, increasing by 24 percent fall-over-fall. Undergraduate certificates, on the other hand, dropped by 9.7 percent, followed by associate degree enrollments (down 7.5 percent).

On the upside, graduate enrollment has increased by 3.9 percent. Private for-profits saw the biggest pickup at 9.1 percent, followed by public four-year schools (4.7 percent).

The largest gain by a graduate school sub-group was Hispanic students; enrollment rose by 14.2 percent among those students. There were 10.2 percent more American Indian/Native Alaskan graduate students enrolled. Among Asian graduate students, the increase was 9.3 percent, followed by Black students with an 8.4 percent upsurge.

For the 26 states for which "sufficient data" was available, researchers reported that 19 states showed fewer undergraduate students compared to the same time last fall; enrollment declines ranged from 0.1 percent (for Virginia) to 13.9 percent (for Arkansas). By contrast, graduate enrollments were up for 21 states, with Arizona leading (with growth of 15.7 percent). Arkansas, again, experienced the biggest drop (15.2 percent) in graduate enrollments.

"Adding to what we saw in the summer term enrollments, the fall data continue to show how much higher the stakes are for community college students during disruptions like the pandemic and the subsequent recession," said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse, in a statement. "The picture will become clearer as more data come in, but at this point the large equity gap for students who rely on community colleges for access to higher education is a matter of critical concern."

The results are openly available on the Student Clearinghouse website. The Clearinghouse expected to release its next set of data findings on Oct. 15, 2020, followed by another on Nov. 11.

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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