Fall enrollment numbers: A few positives, but not for community colleges

Four-year institutions hold steady in Clearinghouse report, sustaining setbacks among freshmen but making gains in graduate students. Two-year colleges don't fare as well.
By: | December 17, 2020
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The final fall enrollment numbers are in from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and there is a sliver of positive news, just not for community colleges.

After several foreboding updates this fall and despite a real 2.5% decline overall in enrollment from 2019, Thursday’s Fall Current Term Enrollment Estimates present a less ominous picture for public and private four-year colleges and universities.

Public four-year enrollment actually grew by 0.2% year over year, while private four-year institutions  declined by just 0.1%, remarkable results given the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had. Private for-profits, the lone sector to show positive numbers among undergraduate and graduate students, grew by 5.3%.

In its previous Stay Informed update, the Center noted there could be as much as a 4.4% decline in overall enrollment. But thanks to graduate-level, certificate and non-degree programs and more institutions releasing data those numbers ended up being improved for four-year institutions in reporting, which represents 97% of the total enrollments at Title IV, degree-granting institutions in the United States.

More than a dozen states, in fact, showed boosts in graduate enrollment, which ballooned by almost 100,000 students in the fall, or 3.6%.

By contrast, two-year institutions sustained enormous setbacks, losing more than 540,000 students, or 10%, from 2019. The declines also highlighted the disparities among more affluent students and students from underserved populations.

The number of first-time enrollees also did drop dramatically across the board in all sectors, likely sparked by effects of the pandemic. Whether that trend will continue bears watching, researchers say, as well as  how international students will be affected in the future.

“As the fall semester comes to a close, the impact of the pandemic seems to be disproportionately affecting disadvantaged students by keeping them out of college,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “The data reveal that community colleges and freshmen saw the steepest drops in enrollment, while the declines among four-year colleges and continuing undergraduates were generally much smaller.”

The challenges ahead

Public four-year universities enjoyed the arrival of 14,000 more students this year than in 2019 but most of that came in a boost from graduate students. Undergraduate numbers did decline slightly at 0.7%, affected significantly by a notable drop in freshman enrollment of 8.1%.

Moving forward, researchers have raised concern that a pattern that emerged this fall – when many 2020 high school graduates decided not to attend college – will continue and may be exacerbated by the impact of COVID-19 on students and their families. Including private institutions and community colleges, there was a 13% decline in freshmen enrolling this fall.

“Looking through the additional lens of 2020 high school graduates, we observe an even sharper picture, as the immediate college enrollments of those from high poverty, low income, and urban high schools have been hit the hardest,” Shapiro said, noting the results of the annual High School Benchmarks study it released a week ago. “The enrollment gaps appear to be widening because of COVID-19 and the recession.”

Private nonprofits lost approximately 36,000 undergraduate students this year but again were helped by an influx of new graduate students. They too sustained a hit to that freshman class, with a decline of 10.5%.

In looking at majors at four-year institutions: Enrollment fell significantly in science technologies (14%), foreign languages (8.5%), ethnic and cultural students (7.5%), English language and literature (7.3%), liberal arts and humanities (6.2%), family and consumer sciences (5.7%), and physical sciences (5.2%).

Enrollment grew the most in psychology (6.9%), transportation (6.9%), personal and culinary services (6.4%), computer and information sciences and support (5.6%) and legal professions (5.4%).

The most popular major of business, management or marketing remained relatively stable (-0.7%) and actually showed a bit of resilience from steeper declines in 2019. Health professions, the second most popular, enjoyed a 1.4% gain.

The hardest hit

The sector that got walloped this fall was community colleges.

Two-year institutions lost more than half a million students. More than 200,000 of those were attributed to the lack of freshmen enrolling. The Center’s researchers noted that the number fell at “a rate almost 20 times higher than the prior year’s decline.”

Both full- and part-time student enrollment dropped by around 10% for two-year institutions. In 2019, that decline was just 1% over the previous year. The number of men also dropped precipitously (14.7%) compared with women (6.8%).

In looking at majors at two-year institutions, most sustained significant losses.

Several registered double-digit setbacks in the fall, including homeland security and law enforcement, engineering technologies, visual and performing arts, mechanic and repair technologies, precision production, communications technologies, English language and literature, personal and culinary services, journalism and physical sciences.

Basic skills and development/remedial education, not a hugely popular major but one that had seen only a less than 1% decline in 2019, dropped a whopping 37%. The only major that enjoyed positive gains was psychology (4.4%).

In looking at graduate enrollment, these 12 states/areas saw increases, led by New Hampshire at +15.8%: Arizona, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, Utah, Virginia, and West Virginia. The states that sustained the biggest setbacks were New Mexico (-9.5%), Michigan (-9.2%), Alaska (9.1%) and Oregon (7.9%).