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Higher Ed Loses 560,200 Students in Fall 2020 over Fall 2019

The percent change in enrollment from the previous year by institutional type.

The percent change in enrollment from the previous year by institutional type. Source: "Fall 2020 Current Term Enrollment Estimates" from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

College enrollments have fallen by 2.5 percent overall for fall 2020, almost twice the size of the fall 2019 decline. The latest and final reporting by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center for the semester stated that higher education lost about 560,200 students over the previous year. A total of 17.5 million students attended universities or colleges in fall 2020, down from 17.9 million students.

Public two-year schools saw the greatest plunge, 10.1 percent, compared to a drop of 1.4 percent in fall 2019, a loss of 544,200 students. Fall public college enrollment for two-year and four-year institutions combined, which traditionally enroll seven of 10 postsecondary students, fell by 4 percent — more than half a million students — primarily because of the decreases felt by the public two-year schools.

The research center also noted that the freshman enrollment plunge of 13.1 percent (327,500 students) over last fall was "unprecedented." This was a rate of decline nearly 20 times higher than the prior year's decline, pre-pandemic. The proportion of first-time students aged 24 or younger fell by 11.6 percent, while the share of those over 24 shrank by 30.1 percent.

Four-year publics saw an increase of two-tenths of a percent, a bump of 14,300 students from fall 2019 — primarily driven by growth in graduate and professional enrollment, which grew by 4.6 percent.

Also, in what the center termed a "bright spot," graduate enrollment across all types of institutions increased by over 98,800 students, or 3.6 percent from the previous fall.

While private nonprofit four-year schools saw a decline of about 1.4 percent or 36,000 undergraduate students, that was offset by an enrollment increase of 2.7 percent in graduate students, making for a 0.1 percent decrease in total enrollment.

Private for-profits were the only type of institution that grew at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, a total of 5.3 percent over fall 2019. This sector represents 4.4 percent of national postsecondary enrollment.

The full results of the final fall 2020 report are openly available on the National Student Clearinghouse 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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