Higher education fall 2020 enrollments: the latest data

As the fall 2020 semester comes to an end, we now have updated data on enrollment.

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center logoThe National Student Clearinghouse Research Center has been tracking these numbers closely all season.  I shared their previous reports as they appeared (September, October, November), and now want to blog about their latest update.

tl;dr version – higher education enrollment dropped significantly in fall 2020, more steeply than any semester over the past decade.

Now let’s look at the details.

The broad picture is unchanged from the previous three releases. Undergraduate enrollment dropped, grad enrollment rose, first-year and community college enrollment fell off of their respective cliffs.  What this week’s report does is upgrade the data.  I asked Doug Shapiro, the Center’s director (and great Future Trends Forum guest) about what they did differently.  His response: gathering even more data from more campuses and weighting results across sectors.

What does the data reveal?

Total enrollment declined 2.5%.

Undergrad enrollment went down 3.6%, or a loss of more than half a million students.

Graduate enrollment went up 3.6%. (There are many more undergrads than grad students – so far – which is why this number has less of an impact.)

First-year enrollment dropped 13.1%.

The Clearinghouse sliced and diced the results in a few different ways.  For example, by sector or institutional type:

enrollment 2016-2020 by sector_Clearinghouse

Note that community colleges not only continued a multiyear decline, but really lost numbers badly this term. Note, too, how for-profits utterly flipped their script from a long-running collapse into the only bright spot this term.  And don’t miss how private four-year institutions endured a slight decline, while public equivalents enjoyed a slight rise.

If we look at this in terms of public versus private, the former suffered badly:

Public college enrollment (two-year and four-year combined), which enrolls 7 out of 10 postsecondary students, declined by 4 percent or nearly 530,000 students this fall, mainly due to decreases at public two-year institutions.

Demographic analysis brings out other elements.  The age of students, for example, shows some variation.  Traditional-age undergraduates (aged 18-24) dropped the most, -3.7%, reflecting that first-year plummet.  Adult learners also declined, but only by 1%.  Looked at in terms of gender, the “feminization” of enrollment accelerated, as men’s numbers dropped more than did women’s.  7,217,092 men took classes this term, down -5.1% from fall 2019.  In contrast, 10,561,392 women enrolled, a dip of just 0.7%.

Slicing the data geographically reveals a more complex picture, with rises and declines scattered across the United States.  The states with the worst losses are in the west, southwest, south, and midwest:

New Mexico 99,900 -9.5%

Michigan 437,480 -9.2%

Alaska 20,234 -9.1%

Oregon 182,820 -7.9%

Washington* 292,382 -7.0%

Mississippi* 153,428 -6.4%

Ohio* 556,354 -6.3%

California 2,298,754 -6.1%

Similarly, leading increases are in the northeast, mid-Atlantic, and west:

New Hampshire 182,020 15.8% (!)

Utah 378,855 4.8%

District of Columbia 72,763 2.9%

From another angle, if we look at the data in terms of full time versus part time study, both declined, overall: -2.2% and 3.1%, respectively.

Changes in majors are very interesting.  The Clearinghouse groups degrees into larger categories, which yield some insights.  Here are the most subscribed fields:

enrollment majors 2018-2020_Clearinghouse

Business rules, but continues a slight decline.  The full spectrum of health care (51, 42, 26) is healthy, especially psych.  The humanities, in contrast, keep falling.  For example, the field where I got my degrees, English Language and Literature/Letters, enrolled 120,097 students, down a whopping -7.3% from last year. 2019’s 129,606 was a -5.0% drop from 2018, itself falling -4.4% from 2017.

What can we say about these findings?

I already commented on earlier editions of this research, and can quickly summarize those notes.  The supermajority of campuses depend heavily on tuition and fees for their business model, so this is trouble. Competition will heat up. The relative health of grad programs might encourage campuses to shift energies in that direction, away from undergrad offerings. The first-year plummet is a hole that’ll work through afflicted institutions for years to come.

Why is this happening?  Clearly COVID-19 plays a role.  When I asked Doug Shapiro about this, he replied that the digital divide had a major impact as the pandemic drove many classes online.  That is, would-be students would saw themselves having issues with hardware, software, or networks were less likely to enroll.  That population is disproportionately represented in community colleges.  Or they viewed hands-on subjects as less likely to be taught well online.  This is a huge point, and yet another sign of the damage the digital divide inflicts on America.

This is also a major blow to the theory that college enrollment rises with unemployment.  Although Shapiro did observe in conversation that some people must have thought the spring economic shock would not last, and didn’t see post-secondary degree work as worth the trouble.

One community college president offered another reason: “The biggest is finances — he says students and their families are squeezed right now, despite the low cost of tuition at most community colleges.”

I would also frame this in terms of the nearly decade-long enrollment decline. I first referred to this trend as peak higher education back in 2013, and so far that model has held. Indeed, fall 2020 is the most intense instance of this enrollment pattern.

Looking ahead to 2021, much depends on how would-be learners perceive the threat of COVID-19 to themselves and how they see campuses responding.  If enough people see colleges and universities as safe places where they can get valuable degrees, enrollment might tick back up in spring.  Otherwise, we can see the decline continue.

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6 Responses to Higher education fall 2020 enrollments: the latest data

  1. Glen McGhee says:

    Enrollment dropped by “… 530,000 students this fall, mainly due to decreases at public two-year institutions.” Is there a pie chart that (roughly) depicts the “slices” for each of these higher-ed components? Thanks.

  2. Karen B says:

    Bryan,
    I think it is important to note a few things… correct me if I am wrong.
    1. The NH bump and the For-Profit bump both indicate a huge move from “traditional” program enrollments to online institutions. Perhaps the assumption is that if I have to take all my courses online, why not go to a place that has an investment and track record in that space.
    2. I wonder if we can see how much of the CC drop is capture in the above boost. How many CC students chose to go to an online school. Certainly many had increased $$ hits, increased family burdens, and all that – but there’s a story in how the online schools were likely ready and willing to take students who might otherwise have enrolled at a local CC.

  3. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Bryan, take a look at the 10 year declines. Alaska’s enrollment is down more than 40 percent. And only four states have net gains over the last decade. Looks like the College Meltdown will continue with more state and county austerity ahead and an enrollment cliff coming up in just 5 years.

  4. Bryan Alexander says:

    Karen, hello!
    1: agreed. For NH, it’s SNHU. (And we’re hosting their president on the Forum soon!)
    2: good point. It must be hard for CCs to compete with better known online enterprises.

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