American higher ed enrollment declined in fall 2020. Again.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoEnrollment in American colleges and universities declined in fall 2020, according to just-released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

This is early but important data for two big reasons.  First, it gives us a glimpse into how students reacted to campus COVID-19 responses.  Second, it confirms a long-running, nearly ten years old trend of enrollment decline.

Here I’ll start by summarizing the Clearinghouse research.  Next I’ll offer some reflections.

One caveat: remember that this is early data.  It only covers 22% of the full Clearinghouse coverage, which I calculate to mean about 14% of all of American higher ed.

Another caveat: this is macro data, looking at an entire nation’s post-secondary sector.  There will of course be variations by state, region, system, and individual institution.


Overall, total enrollment ticked down 1.8%, largely due to “undergraduate enrollments [which] are running 2.5 percent below last year’s level.”  Every institutional sector saw losses, especially community colleges:

enrollment 2020 fall undergrad by sector_Clearinghouse

Graduate school enrollments actually did well, rising 3.9%.  Post-bac certificates in particular soared:

enrollment 2020 fall degree type_Clearinghouseenrollment 2020 fall degree type_Clearinghouse

All racial groups saw declines, across the board:

American Indian and Native Alaskan students are down 8%; White students and Black students declined 6% each, and both Hispanic and Asian student enrollments dropped more than 3%.

enrollment 2020 fall by ethnicity_Clearinghouse

Notice the non-resident alien lines there?  The international student number dropped by 11%, which is unsurprising, given the combination of pandemic, Trump noises, various federal policy statements, and school shootings.

All ages showed declines, with one intriguing exception: high schoolers pursuing dual degree programs.

enrollment 2020 fall undergrad by age_Clearinghouse

Interestingly, institutions that were online before 2020 didn’t enjoy exceptions to these trends:

At primarily online institutions, where more than 90 percent of students enrolled exclusively online even before the pandemic, undergraduates decreased by 3.5%, and graduate students gained by 3% for an overall decrease of 2.3%.

Geographical dimensions are uneven.  On the one hand, enrollment varies by state:

enrollment 2020 fall undergrad by state map_Clearinghouseenrollment 2020 fall undergrad by state map_Clearinghouse

On the other hand, urban campuses generally did better than rural ones, which runs counter to the idea that people will flee crowded cities for the countryside’s open spaces and fresh air.  “[C]ity institutions are faring far better than suburban and rural public four-year colleges.”  According to the press release, “urban institutions increas[ed] slightly while rural schools fell 4%.”


I have many questions, some of which, at least, should be answered in following publications.  What are the differences by gender?  What are enrollment absolute numbers?  (I estimate 17,641,900, based on the Clearinghouse’s 2019 publication) Do we know about changes to academic programs?  How will these patterns change with more data from more colleges and universities? And so forth.

We can interpret this data as a sign of COVID-19’s impact.  As I and others have forecast, fears of the pandemic and concerns about online learning seem to have outweighed the typical recession credential-seeking. Bloomberg News puts it succinctly: “Fewer students are opting to attend college in the U.S., deterred by Covid-19 risk and the prospect of taking classes online.”

However, the decline is not as sharp as I expected.  The undergrad decline is significant, suggesting that the BS/BA is not appealing for the job market of 2020.  Graduate programs seem to be the way people choose for improving their hiring prospects. That’s a major finding from this data, and I expect it will influence college and especially university strategies.  This is fodder for expanding grad programs and expanding new ones, perhaps at the expense of undergrad degrees.

Doug Shapiro (the Clearinghouse’s Executive Director and great Future Trends Forum guest) reflected on this in conversation with Inside Higher Ed.  On the one hand, “I would say that the overall decline of 2.5 percent for undergraduates is not as bad as many feared, and if it stays that low as more data come in for the fall, I think there would be a big sigh of relief…”  But on the other:

“But I think even within that overall average, there are a lot of students and institutions that are already in great need, so I would say it would be very bad indeed if the enrollments stay this low later in the term for community colleges, where we have 7.5 percent decline from last year at this point. And it’s not much better for the four-year private nonprofits. Those are both institutional categories that were already operating on very thin margins even before the pandemic, so it’s not good for the institutions, but even more seriously, it’s very concerning for the students.”

Community colleges offer the sharpest example of this idea.  A 7.5% drop is truly steep, especially given how many people normally turn to CCs in recessions, given their accessibility and sensitivity to the labor market.  This is also a problem for that enormous sector, given years of enrollment decline.

Martha M. Parham, the American Association of Community Colleges’s senior vice president for public relations, offered some reasons to the Washington Post, including the digital divide:

Many [community colleges] serve students who have suffered job losses and no longer can afford to take classes or are struggling to juggle work while caring for children stuck at home. Another major hurdle, she said, is the lack of reliable broadband for students whose courses are virtual. “At some of our rural colleges, there is just not the same access to broadband that is necessary for online classes,” Parham said. “Our students are not affluent. If they’ve lost a job, don’t know how they’re going to pay rent, certainly they are not going to take a class.”

To put it another way, this is further proof that America’s persistent digital divide clearly hampers access to badly needed higher education.

American Council on Education’s Terry W. Hartle observes:

“Higher education enrollment is countercyclical; when the economy struggles, people go to college to boost their economic prospects. In the fall of 2009, the year after the Great Recession began, enrollment in higher education went up by one million students and enrollment increases at that time were particularly pronounced at the community college level. That’s clearly different than what we are seeing this time.”

Moreover, there are other problems resulting from the community college drop:

“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 National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “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.”

I also view this data as another iteration of a long-running decline.  I’ve tracked the story of declining enrollment on this blog for almost a decade. I’ve also written about it in my most recent book, Academia Next: The Futures of Higher Education, (Johns Hopkins University Press) (Amazon). This trend is vital for understanding American higher ed, especially its strategic choices.

To echo Hartle and Shapiro, this is bad news if we want to increase post-secondary access for underrepresented populations.  It’s also lousy news for the supermajority of institutions that depend on tuition for revenue.  Declining enrollment can yield declining revenue, obviously, which then forces choices on afflicted campuses: go more aggressively after wealthy students? Increase tuition? Grow more attractive programs and cut others? Bet on philanthropy or corporate sponsorship? Seek mergers? Prepare for shut down?

The historical fact is that America grew higher education enrollment for a generation, from around 1980 to 2012.  That was a great achievement.  But 2012 was the peak, and we’ve fallen away from it every year – every semester, in fact. If America still believes in giving more people more access to post-secondary education, we are failing and have been failing for a while.

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2 Responses to American higher ed enrollment declined in fall 2020. Again.

  1. Glen McGhee says:

    I wish that we had a better metric to work with — enrollment figures are flimsy, wishy-washy. Any suggestions?
    How much of this is reflected in substantially greater declines in FSA Student Loan distributions? How can we triangulate this?

  2. It might be worth reversing the order of your analysis and seeing if that might make a difference in your conclusions. What if you were to start with the finding that although enrollment is down, the drop is much smaller than expected? Does that mean that the drop falls within the normal variance parameters that would make it impossible to say that the actual change is attributable to anything in particular?

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