Spring enrollment looks the same as last fall, down 2.9%

A new National Clearinghouse Student Research Center report shows additional drops for public four-year institutions and continued struggles for community colleges.
By: | March 11, 2021
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Preliminary enrollment data released Thursday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that little has changed from last fall to this spring, which may not be comforting news for postsecondary institutions.

Overall, college enrollment for the spring fell by 2.9%, essentially mirroring the declines from the fall. Although graduate numbers surged at +4.3%, undergraduate numbers dropped 4.5%. Community colleges continue to see enrollment numbers decimated at higher rates than all other institutions. All told, the undergraduate losses could add up to more than half a million students over this academic year.

One of the most significant, negative trends to come out of the latest Stay Informed report – accounting for 6.7 million students and 43% of higher ed institutions – is that public four-year undergraduate enrollment fell by 3.3% compared with only a 1.9% drop in the fall. As more institutions report their data, those numbers could change, although likely not that much.

It is clear that the effects of COVID-19 are still lingering. Last spring, the decline was just 1.1%. The hope is that vaccines and fall reopenings will change the dynamic, though there remain many barriers to overcome these trends including affordability and convenience for students.

“There’s no quick turnaround in sight for undergraduate enrollment declines driven by the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “Education institutions, high schools and policymakers will need to work together to help bring back the learners who are struggling during the pandemic and recession, particularly disadvantaged groups who are struggling the most during the pandemic and the recession.”

Three notable enrollment data points that have remained consistent throughout the pandemic have continued into 2021:

  • Community colleges saw declines of 9.5%, mirroring fall 2020 numbers. Last spring that number was -1.3%.
  • Enrollment of all racial and ethnic categories dropped in the spring, as they had done in the fall.
  • And enrollment for students ages 18-24 dipped by 5.3% year over year, as it did in the fall. Back in 2020, that number was nearly level. The Clearinghouse noted that the declines were almost double those of students 25 and over.

“The December and January surge in COVID-19 is keeping students out of college through the spring term, even though most colleges are online,” Shapiro said.

Diving deeper

Two troubling trends within the report, which was done in mid-February, are the disparities in both two-year enrollment numbers and the declines among subgroups of students who have been affected by the pandemic.

For example, there has been a 10.5% drop in students who are pursuing associate’s degrees at either two- or four-year institutions. That is actually worse than the 9% fall in 2020 and more than triple the declines from spring of 2020. Compare that to bachelor’s degree seekers – whose enrollment numbers slid 2.1% in the spring, double the dip from last fall.

“I think many of the associate degree programs, particularly those that are more vocationally oriented, are harder to adapt to online,” Shapiro said. “Also, associate degree programs and community colleges generally tend to serve those who have been affected by the pandemic and by the job losses that have resulted from the recession.”

One positive sign is the number of older students who are looking for two-year degree did not decline as much as those in the 18-24 age range, indicating perhaps that this unique reaction to the pandemic – where community colleges have struggled against what would seem to be a strong environment for growth – might be shifting back.

But those being affected

  • Enrollments of international students have fallen 16% for undergrads and 5% for graduate students.
  • Native Americans were among the hardest hit group, with declines reaching 12.5% or nearly five points more than in 2020.
  • Asian and Hispanic students, which both saw growth in enrollment prior to the pandemic, have been in decline throughout the academic year at 3.5% and 5.5% respectively. Latina women, the report notes, have see a 10% drop at community colleges; last year they grew 1.8%.
  • White and Black students both fell at 5%, nearly the same as in the fall.

“The undergraduate declines in enrollment are spread across all racial and ethnic groups,” Shapiro said. “And they also fell much more steeply for men than for women within each group The most difficulty in recovery is likely to be among the lowest-income students who have really been hit the hardest. To the extent that some of the racial and ethnic groups are also correlated to lower-income communities and families, those groups are likely to be staying out the longest.”

Silver linings again were few, although graduate numbers continued to be robust. From the early data, they are up 4.3%, a rise from both the fall (+2.9% and +1.5% last spring), driven by enrollments at public four-year institutions. Certificate programs also showed upticks in undergraduates (3.3%) and graduate students (15.4%) year over year.  Primarily online institutions did well too (+7.1%), buoyed by graduate students (7.4%).

Bachelor’s degree programs that have shown growth include computer and information sciences. Business, health, education, computer and information sciences, and public administration on the Master’s level have all increased too.