How is higher education enrollment changing this year?
I’ve been tracking enrollment trends for years. In 2020 things have become more strange and intense, given the combination of pandemic and bad recession. So far the best data we have shows that the total number of students taking classes at American colleges and universities has declined during the fall semester by about 3.3%. This drop is sharper than the steady decline we’ve seen for nearly a decade.
A new report today sheds some light on this topic. The number of student who graduated from high school in 2020 and proceeded directly to higher ed fell by 21.7%.
I’d like to share highlights that struck me as important. Let’s dive in.
One quick caveat: not all college and university students are recent high school grads, despite the popularity of this image. A good chunk are adults. In today’s post we’re just focusing on the 18-year-old segment.
The report comes from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which has been doing great work on enrollment data. A key finding from this latest publication is that while COVID doesn’t seem to have slowed down high school graduation rates, it seems to have cut back that population’s college enrollment by more than one-fifth: “21.7 percent, nearly eight times the pre-pandemic loss rate (-2.8%).”
Put another way,
The immediate college enrollment rate decreased to 27.7 percent from 35.3 percent last fall, a decline ten times steeper than last fall’s drop (from 35.9% in 2018 to 35.3% in 2019).
That figure doesn’t cover variations by race, geography, or class, which the report does address. High schools with a majority of students who are poor, or underrepresented minorities, or from cities sent far few graduates straight to college than the rest:
What kinds of higher education institution are these students attending, or not? It looks like recent high school grads are avoiding community colleges most of all:
Summing up, Inside Higher Ed quotes the Clearinghouse’s director, Doug Shapiro:
[T]he pandemic impacted high school graduates in their immediate college enrollment, and those from high poverty, low income, and urban high schools have been hit the hardest. The enrollment gaps appear to be widening because of COVID-19.
University Business describes this development as “an alarming free-fall in the postsecondary enrollment rate.”
Why does this matter?
First, if higher ed is currently experiencing an increased focus on equity gaps, it looks like that problem just got worse, at least when it comes to recent high school graduates.
Second, unless these numbers completely reverse themselves in fall 2021, higher ed will have to deal with this hole for the next few years.
Third, this could give some institutions the incentive to work more closely with high schools in order to improve that pipeline. The opposite is also possible, in that campuses could decide to double down on adult learners.