Clearinghouse reports 4% drop in undergrad enrollment

Data shows big declines for community colleges and first-time students; the national research center notes huge drops at four-year institutions haven't materialized yet
By: | October 14, 2020
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The latest undergraduate enrollment numbers are in from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and the takeaways from the past month’s results show both positive and negative signs.

Though overall college enrollment has fallen 4% year on year – and showed a further decline from the 2.5% reported by the Center just weeks ago – the steep drops that were expected as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and other variables haven’t occurred yet.

“Public and private nonprofit institutions are actually in fairly good shape, all things considered,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Clearinghouse Center. “When you compare to the expectations, I think, there were generally fears of much worse declines. Some suggested even the 20% range, especially at the traditional four-year schools.”

Four-year public and non-profit private institutions are holding ground, with enrollment figures showing declines of 1.4% and 2.0%, respectively.

However, the news in two other areas wasn’t as cheery.

Enrollment at community colleges has decreased by 9.4%, or nine times the pre-pandemic loss rate (-1.1% for fall 2019, compared to fall 2018). That was fueled by a whopping 23% decrease in the amount of first-time students entering two-year institutions. Incoming freshmen showed the largest drop of any student group – down 16.1% – including 13.7% and 11.8% dips at four-year public and non-profit private colleges and universities, respectively

Shapiro offered a potential explanation for the freshman freefall.

“We’ve heard a lot about large numbers of freshmen who are opting to take gap years,” Shapiro said. “That’s a very different thing when you’re choosing not to enroll because perhaps the campus experience will lessen the value proposition for you of going to college as a freshman. But I think those students who have that choice are much more likely to be coming to be confident in their ability to come back, say the next year or even the next semester. Whereas at the community colleges, I think it’s not so much choice.

“We know there were many who expected to see increases at community colleges. And that’s because of the recession effect, because so many adults are now unemployed. And also because many students were expected to transfer from four-year colleges into lower-cost options or options closer to home. So, by that measure, the 9.4% decline at community colleges is even more worrisome.”

A further look inside the numbers

The data presented by the Clearinghouse is based on 9.2 million students – or close to 54% of institutions – reporting as of Sept. 24. It noted that all specific student groups showed declines, led by international students (-13.7%) and Indian and Native Alaskan students (-10.7%), Blacks (-7.9), Whites (-7.6), Hispanics (-6.1%) and Asian students (-4.0%). Male undergraduate enrollment fell by three times the rate of female enrollment (-6.4% vs. -2.2%).

Some of those numbers didn’t surprise Clearinghouse officials, but others did.

“We expected to see steeper declines among black and Native American and Latinx students, essentially, because of the very different economic and health impacts of the labor market and pandemic that we know have affected those students the most, and their communities, not to mention the racial stresses of the summer protests,” Shapiro said. “White students are declining just as much as blacks, and they are lagging behind the Blacks on the growth side at the graduate level. Hispanic students seem to be doing relatively better than in all those categories at both undergraduate and graduate levels.”

Despite all the downward trends, there were areas that continued to see growth, particularly on the graduate side, where enrollment rose across all racial/ethnic groups, particularly Hispanic and Black students at 14.2% and 9.3%, respectively.

Two more areas that saw increases in enrollment were for-profit, four-year colleges at plus-3%, and primarily online institutions, which showed growth at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, +6.8% and +7.2%, respectively, regardless of student age.

Regionally, Midwest institutions showed the biggest drops at -5.7%, followed by the West (-3.9%), South (-3.6%) and Northeast (-3.4%). Only five of the 47 states within the study – Nebraska, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont, and West Virginia – had more undergraduates this year than last year at this time. Urban campuses were down slightly at 1.3%, while rural campuses were down 3%.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for University Business. He can be reached at