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Drop in Undergrad Enrollment Increases to 4.4%

At 4.4 percent, the decline in undergraduate college enrollment is a bit steeper than reported last month, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. But, according to one researcher, it still isn't as high as early predictions would have set it based on data coming early in the pandemic.

As Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, explained, "The big picture remains the same after the inclusion of data for an additional 4.4 million students." In total, the latest reporting is based on enrollment of 13.6 million students, as of Oct. 22, 2020.

Declines compared to last year's enrollments were greatest among freshmen and community college students. Last month, with 54 percent of institutions reporting data, undergraduate enrollment was down 16 percent; this month, with 76 percent of postsecondary schools reporting, the decline was 13 percent.

Community colleges showed the biggest hurt: a drop of 18.9 percent, nearly 19 times the pre-pandemic loss rate of 1 percent that occurred between fall 2018 and 2019, yet still not as bad as the initial expectation of a 23 percent decline for freshmen in community colleges.

Public four-year institution enrollment shrank by 10.5 percent and private nonprofit four-year schools dropped 8.5 percent.

The impact of COVID-19 on undergraduate enrollment was felt most in schools in the Midwest, where numbers were down by 5.7 percent, followed by schools in the West (where they dropped by 4.7 percent). Just five states (Idaho, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah and West Virginia) welcomed more undergraduate students this fall than last fall. On the other end, South Dakota saw a 12.4 percent decline, followed by New Mexico, where the reduction was 9.7 percent, and Alaska and Indiana, each down by 9.2 percent.

Shapiro noted the "large divide" between the declines for Black, Hispanic and Native American freshmen compared to White and Asian students. This was especially acute at community colleges, where enrollment for underserved groups shrank by 28 to 29 percent, while enrollment for White and Asian students went down by 19 percent. He added this caveat: "The breakdowns should be interpreted with some caution because our race and ethnicity data has lower coverage rates generally than the overall enrollment data." Hispanic enrollment declined at community colleges by 10.6 percent; Black enrollment dropped by 12.8 percent; and Native American enrollment fell by 13.1 percent.

Why have community colleges taken such a hit this year, contrary to previous economic downturns during which enrollment exploded? Shapiro suggested that a few factors were in play. First, "This is a very atypical economic downturn," he said. "It's unlike any recession that we've ever seen, partly in terms of the suddenness, the depth, and also in terms of the expectation among many people that it would be of very brief duration." While unemployment rates may have been "astronomically high," the thinking was that the pandemic would "blow over very quickly and we would be back to normal and all the jobs would come right back."

Also, in a normal recession, "It often takes more than a few months for adults and displaced workers to eventually show up in college. It might take six months, nine months, 12 months," Shapiro observed. Even though the current downturn is nearly nine months old, however, older students are still not enrolling at community colleges, which he called "a big surprise." Part of that may be tied to "the severe hit to family finances." Part of it may be the challenges community colleges have faced in converting many of their courses — particularly vocational programs — into online instruction."

A year from now, the picture could be very different, he added. "We will probably see more adult students coming to colleges in the fall."

Research Center Higher Education Policy Analyst Mikyung Ryu offered another point to consider: Many adults are choosing to pursue education in for-profit and online institutions, a pair of categories that often overlap. "I see the data [showing] increases this fall in the age group of 25 to 29 years old and even [those] 30 to 39 years old," she said. For example, at primarily online institutions, undergraduate enrollment for students 25 to 29 grew by six times, from 0.6 percent in fall 2019 to 4.1 percent in fall 2020. For those aged 30 and above, the growth was three times greater, from 1 percent to 3.3 percent. Increases were similarly high at the graduate level in those age groups.

Shapiro concurred, noting, "Schools that are already good at delivering programs online are in a better position to capture some of this disruption than the community colleges."

One surprise for researchers surfaced in undergraduate enrollment at four-year public schools. Last year enrollment by Hispanic students rose by 1.4 percent compared to all other races and ethnicities, which declined. But this year that subgroup fell by 5.4 percent. "We expected them to continue to increase," Shapiro said. By comparison, he pointed out, White students declined by 6.6 percent this year, seemingly a larger reduction; yet last year their numbers were declining by 5.8 percent, making the 2020 reduction "less than a percentage point worse this year than what it was last year."

In other findings:

  • At for-profit institutions, whereas overall enrollment showed an increase of 3 percent last month, with the greater representation, enrollment has ended up flat — a drop of less than a tenth of a percent.
  • International student enrollments at the undergraduate level dropped "severely (by 14.9 percent), the researchers reported and were still the only student group that experienced declines in graduate enrollment (which was down 7.8 percent).
  • Fall graduate enrollment was a different story than all the others. It's up in 38 states, with three states — Mississippi (+17.9 percent), Virginia (+10.6) and New Hampshire (+10.1 percent) — experiencing double-digit increases. In contrast, 11 states faced declines ranging from 0.2 percent to 4.7 percent.
  • Overall, whereas last month's reporting suggested flat enrollment for private nonprofits, now, the Research Center has pegged enrollment as an increase of 1.4 percent.

The Research Center said its next report would be published on Dec. 17, 2020.

The current reporting is openly available in interactive charts available on the NSC Research Center website.

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